Without a doubt, the visual design team (Ken MacDonald, Judith Bowden, Jock Munro and Adam Larsen) have combined their considerable talents and given the eye a bouquet of treats that make full use of the Festival Theatre. What fun to have the Ascot horses dash across the stage (and the hilariously disinterested upper class) as “lighting steeds” and have pigeons flit about Covent Garden at will (once becoming so large that any “bombast” could have made craters in the cobblestone streets below).
Indeed, the bird-in-a-cage motif—starting as a single pet—had a spectacular payoff when distraught Professor Higgins (Benedict Campbell whose dramatic sensibilities knew just when to remove his “academic” glasses) flew in a frenzy into his mother’s (Sharry Flett) tony digs seeking solace only to discover Eliza Doolittle (Deborah Hay)—‘erself ‘avin’ just flown the coup after a stunning début at the Transylvanian Embassy Ball.
Of course, the transformation of both Doolittles (Neil Barclay had the ‘onours as Alfred) from guttersnipes to apparent respectability informs most of the show. If only the vital musical and dance components had been able to keep pace with the marvellous tableaus and ever-dependable acting acumen of the company, this production could have been the crown jewel for the Shaw Festival’s golden season.
Vocally, Campbell led the pack. His baritone hue seems to have improved over the years—add that to his comedic sense, timing and visual reinforcement of character and it’s hard to imagine a better result. As always, Hay lights up the proceedings with every entrance, yet wasn’t as secure in the upper range as, greedily, we’ve come to expect. Try as he might, Patrick Galligan is unable to sustain the longer notes in Colonel Pickering’s songs without veering off pitch. Once his first climactic note was behind him, Mark Uhre’s “On the Street Where You Live” (especially the reprise) was the most consistent, well-rounded singing of the night. The Cockney Quartet made sour shambles of the close harmonies in their introduction to “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?” and slid into pitch purgatory elsewhere. “Hmmm” indeed.
Paul Sportelli led a spirited troupe of musicians in the pit: most of the ensemble was spot on—the contributions from the woodwinds were especially welcome as were violinist Kathryn Sugden’s solo turns.
However, electronically reinforcing both the singers and the orchestra gave the aural side of the musical a near-incessantly similar, bland mix that forgot the notion of “manmade” balance, depth of perception and dynamics. If the lights, sets, and people can move about the stage, why can’t the music?
The other disappointment was Daniel Pelzig’s too-conservative-by-half choreography—strangely at one with the limited range of the music.
Molly Smith presided over the proceedings with customary inventiveness, drawing fine performances from the principals, but much of the nuanced work had to settle for “seen, not heard.”
Corragio! Next time let those in and above the pit speak for themselves. JWR