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OSF makes it big with 'My Fair Lady'

Sometimes characters take on a life of their own. Like Anton Chekhov, who kept insisting "The Cherry Orchard" was a comedy. George Bernard Shaw always insisted that "Pygmalion" was a political play and not a love story.

That's never stopped audiences of Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady," the Broadway musical based on "Pygmalion," from wanting to see Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins come together romantically in the end. After "Pygmalion," Shaw spent the rest of his life battling actors and directors wanting romance to conquer all in the end.

We expect bickering pairs to realize hey, they're in love. Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Rhett and Scarlett. But it would be hard to imagine Rachael Warren's Eliza falling for Jonathan Haugen's Professor Higgins, who is so nasty his own dog wouldn't like him, if he weren't too selfish to have one.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new revival of "My Fair Lady" opened Saturday night in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, starting with an actor telling the audience she was turning off her cellphone as other actors milled about, hung up jackets onstage or sat in onstage bleachers. They also sit in the bleachers during the play when they're not on, reflecting director Amanda Dehnert's belief that theatrical artifice should be visible.

That choice and the adoption of the two-piano score approved by Lerner and Loewe led to a stripped-down set with the pianos at center stage, the bleachers in the rear, hints of fences, doors and street lights here and there, a sharp contrast with the Edwardian pomp in which directors often drape productions of the show.

It's probably safe to say most people were hearing for the first time the two-piano arrangement commissioned by Frederick Lowe and created by Trude Rittmann. The score is serviceable, and the pianists able enough, although there's no way two instruments are going to sound like an orchestra.

Still, songs such as Eliza's "Wouldn't it be Loverly?" and Alfred's "With a Little Bit of Luck" were as thrilling as ever. The songs in "My Fair Lady" advance the action. When Eliza has a breakthrough, she celebrates with Higgins and Colonel Pickering (David Kelly) in "The Rain in Spain." When Freddy (Ken Robinson) sings "On the Street Where You Live," he's announcing to us his crush on Eliza.

The singing and dancing are generally robust, and they rise to pandemonium levels in "Get Me to the Church on Time," which choreographer Jaclyn Miller has turned into a jaw-dropping rhythm spectacle that was rewarded with a sustained ovation.

The show ultimately belongs to Rachael Warren. Not only can she sing and dance with gusto, her Eliza has the brains and the steel to stand up to the overbearing Higgins. Dehnert, who teaches theater at Northwestern University, previously directed Warren as Eliza at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., where Dehnert was artistic director, and it's easy to see why she wanted Warren this time around.

Warren flares in wounded outrage when her flowers are knocked in the street in the opening scene, then exudes pluck when she shows up at Higgins' place asking for speech lessons. She hopes to rise in the world — an audacious idea in 1912 London — to become, say, a salesgirl in a flower shop.

When she finally transitions from the rine in spine stying minely in the pline to "The Rain in Spain," she blossoms into a gracious lady in costume designer Devon Painter's elegant creations. But eventually, fed up with Higgins' dismissive arrogance, Warren flies at him, her impacted rage bursting forth with something between a shriek and a roar: "What am I fit for?"

If we take Shaw at his word, it's important that Higgins shouldn't be too sympathetic so as not to encourage anybody's latent desire to see a romance bloom. There is no danger of this with Haugen's performance, which befits a man who disgusts even his mother, Mrs. Higgins (Chavez Ravine). Haugen sings his own part in a strong baritone, although his upper-class English doesn't quite hit the mark.

Much of the play's wickedest humor comes from Anthony Heald's scruffy, amoral Alfred P. Doolittle. (As with Haugen, who knew he could sing and dance?) An audible gasp went through the audience when, mistaking Higgins' heuristic intentions for carnal ones, he offered to sell his daughter for a fiver.

David Kelly is funny without a Higgins-style cruel streak as Colonel Pickering, the linguist who bets Higgins he can't transform Eliza but ironically treats her like a lady in contrast to Higgins' misogynistic abuse.

"My Fair Lady" is ultimately about transformation. Eliza's arc takes her from guttersnipe to whatever you call a woman who can pass for a duchess in a class-conscious society. Warren doesn't actually change so much as come to an understanding of who she is.

And who is that? When she returns to Covent Garden she finds that she doesn't belong there any more, since her old cockney pals don't recognize her all dressed up and speaking like a fine lady. Shaw, ever the socialist, was being didactic in showing his belief that working-class people could rise, and women could be strong and independent creatures in the world.

Even without an orchestra or elaborate sets, "My Fair Lady" is a big production with a big cast. There are lots of ensemble roles and doubling, most of which is pretty obvious. In the end, Eliza and Higgins have been changed, each by the other. The famously ambiguous ending is accomplished with a simple action that echoes the 1938 movie version.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Henry Higgins (Jonathan Haugen) explains the joys of the English language to Eliza (Rachael Warren).