On International Theater Day last year I took part in a panel discussion on Israeli theater, along with actor and director Natan Datner and others. When Israeli theater was accused of being too commercial, Datner – who is superb as Professor Higgins in the new Habima production of “My Fair Lady” – defended the repertory theater’s right to present high-level entertainment. I asked him what “My Fair Lady” was about and he thought I was being condescending. All I meant to say was that aside from being a classic musical and a mightily-constructed piece of theater by every measure, it’s a story about a girl from a lowly and oppressed socioeconomic class (in Israel, the Mizrahim, Jews with origins in Eastern lands) who is taken on as a project by Higgins, a representative of the privileged elite (in Israel, the Ashkenazim, Jews of European descent), in order to “civilize” her as he sees fit. She is seduced, and burned. In other words, it’s also an allegory about proper grammar and speech as signifiers that enable a person to succeed in a class society. It is not just a matter of old and new elites or an East-West culture clash.
But that’s just an incidental anecdote, since I had good reason to see the Habima production of “My Fair Lady” again. Rita has taken over the lead role from Shani Cohen, in a return to the part that marked the start of her theatrical career 30 years ago. I saw her perform the role in 1986. At the time, I had some criticisms of the production as a whole, but as for her performance, I wrote, “Tonight, Rita, you did it!”
First of all, she is an outstanding singer, and the role of Eliza Doolittle truly calls for that. When I heard her this time “opening up” her voice in “I Could Have Danced All Night,” it was genuinely a great pleasure. But I knew that would be the case even before the curtain went up.
There are two dimensions to this play now: One is the production itself, directed by Moshe Kepten, with a large, energetic cast and amusing choreography (Avichai Hacham) that adds elements of American steps and French cancan to this musical that takes place in London. And the acting is very entertaining,too, with Pini Kidron as Alfred P. Doolittle, Tami Spivak as Mrs. Higgins, and of course, Datner, who is clearly having a blast, as Professor Higgins. To my taste, the production tends to be a tad too far to the comic side, requiring Dov Reiser, in the role of Colonel Pickering, to have to work a bit too hard.
The second dimension in all this is Rita, who plays both inside and outside the part a little. For example, in one song, she notes in an aside to the audience that she’s “not 16 anymore” (a reference to one of her biggest hits, though few people know that the lyrics were written by Hanoch Levin). She also really plays up the comic side of the character, both during “The Rain in Spain” (causing her and her partners to burst out laughing, twice), and at the Ascot race. In a way this is the musical itself, and simultaneously a kind of parodic comment on it.
Of course, it is a pleasure to hear her sing, but what was even more enjoyable was seeing her excellent acting skills, both as the flower-seller and as a lady. Her scenes with Datner in the second act – an emotional-philosophical conflict, not exactly light entertainment – were marvelous theater that suddenly cast an entirely different kind of spell on the audience than what you get in a light-hearted musical. And when Rita and Datner almost kissed, it elicited an amazingly sweet sigh of relief and pleasure from the audience.
So, “Rita, you have triumphed once again.” The 1986 production wasn’t quite up to your level, but this time you add an extra boost to what is already a very high-quality production. This production is worthy of you, and you are worthy of it.
Habima Theater presents “My Fair Lady” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, based on the stage play “Pygmalion” by Bernard Shaw. Translation: Dan Almagor and Shraga Friedman. Director: Moshe Kepten. Musical director: Yossi Ben Nun. Next performances will be staged at Habima on Friday (6.11) at 21.00 and Sunday (8.11) at 20.00.