Can One Performer Destroy the Show?

by Steven LaVigne

My Fair Lady

Here’s the situation: You’ve bought tickets for a classic that you know very well, in this case, it’s the London transfer of My Fair Lady. The 2018 Broadway revival at Lincoln Center was exceptional: Harry Haden-Paton from Downton Abbey as Henry Higgins; Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as Eliza; (the late) Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins, Allan Corduner (Topsy-Turvy) as Pickering and Broadway veteran Norbert Leo Butz as Alfie P. Doolittle. Directed by Bartlett Sher, the production was superb, for one reason, because Sher gave the show a new ending that was subtle, but worked!

In London, Haden-Paton recreated his Tony Award-winning performance. Malcolm Sinclair was cast as Col. Pickering, Stephen K. Amos as Alfie, and Dame Vanessa Redgrave stepped into the role of Mrs. Higgins. So, other than Redgrave’s cover going on for her (with no announcement beforehand) what could go wrong?

Amara Okereke caused a sensation with the press, because, evidently, she’s the first professional black actress ever cast as Eliza Doolittle, at least in the West End. The London Coliseum, a comfortable, old, worn-out, but still beautiful barn in St. Martin’s Lane would house this production. So you feel that old excitement when the familiar overture begins. But something seems wrong.

The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, is a thrust stage and the Coliseum is a proscenium, so Micheal Yeargan’s sets don’t really fit the stage. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are different, and they’re all wrong for the Georgian London period of the show.

The curtain rises on the familiar scene in Covent Garden, under the portal of St. Paul’s Actors Church, but the pillars are stage left. The eye naturally travels from left to right, here, Yeargan placed a fence and trash cans stage right, an unlikely site in Covent Garden to begin with, so as the story unfolds left, you’re eyes are drawn to what little action is stage right. Everything’s cramped, but the show opens with Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Sharif Afifi) knocking over Eliza Doolittle’s basket, her cries of lose wages and her first encounter with Henry Higgins.

For some reason, Okereke chose to make her Eliza memorable by playing her, not as the determined flower girl we’ve come to expect, but angry and defensive instead. This approach is completely wrong for the character, because it lacks the character’s naïve charm and curiosity. Okereke never drops this attitude either and her performance is totally one-note. When she arrives at Higgins’ home, although Eliza is trying hard to behave like a lady, she’s terrified, so she doesn’t succeed. Okereke’s negative energy has drained any joy from the production about 15 minutes into the first act.

Evidently, Okereke was cast for her exciting voice, but her voice is limited, and, because the song’s out of her ranged, it never soars in “I Could Have Danced All Night,” as it should. The orchestra covers for her on the final high notes. During the Ascot Scene, when Eliza makes her debut in society, Okereke plays it slapstick to milk for deliberate laughs. This is so inappropriate for My Fair Lady, because the decorum was already established at the top of the scene with the song “Ascot Gavotte.” The scene is written so Eliza’s dialogue will bring laughs. However, Okereke got away with it, turning the scene drab and ugly rather than trusting the material which has worked since 1956.

My guess is that Sher started rehearsals but left the show in the hands of company manager Jonathan Stott who thought he could improve this classic. In this production, everything is so misguided that the magic of the show is nowhere in sight. Sher is currently preoccupied with Aaron Sorkin on a new version of Camelot set to open at the Beaumont in 2023.

So how do we assess the damage done to this, one of the greatest musicals in the American Theater? Besides the awkward and often vulgar direction, the performances are far below standard. Haden-Paton, who won a Tony for his performance, appeared tired and bored; Sinclair played Pickering as if he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, with some disturbing pauses, you almost thought he couldn’t remember his lines. Stephen K. Amos is a renowned British comedian and probably the tallest, thinnest Alfie ever, but his Cockney accent comes and goes, seldom working to his advantage. As Alfie Doolittle, at Lincoln Center, “With a Little Bit of Luck” stopped the first act! In London, it didn’t.

The London reviewers fell all over themselves throwing accolades at Amara Okereke, but after seeing this performance, we question how was she cast in the first place, and furthermore, how she was allowed to get away with this performance. There must have been plenty of other women who could have played the role properly. Nothing in the first act worked. (My friend and I left at the interval).

Having seen countless productions over the past 60 years, both amateur and professional, I can cite two more times when an actor drained all the energy out of a production:

Master Class

Terrence McNally was so passionate about Maria Callas that he wrote two plays about her. The first was a little thriller titled The Lisbon Traviata, but he wrote a biographical drama based on the diva’s stint teaching at Julliard the year before she died. That play, Master Class was produced on Broadway in 1996 starring Guthrie alumnus Zoe Caldwell, who won a Tony for her exquisite performance. However, when Caldwell left, Patti Lupone stepped in.

While Lupone is a well-reviewed, award-winning actress who’s recently garnered praise for stopping performances and scolding audiences when cell phones interrupt her, she’s not an especially competent performer. When listening to her, it’s often difficult to determine what she’s saying, because she garbles dialogue and doesn’t articulate. Never was this more evident than the performance of Master Class I saw in New York during the summer of 1996.

While Caldwell’s performance lasted close to three hours, Lupone had the matinee audience out of the theater in 2 hours, 5 minutes, including the interval. She never came close to capturing the emotions and pain Callas was feeling at this point of her life. While working with young singers, her mind wanders to memories of her life as the mistress of Aristotle Onassis. She gave up her career for him and even bore his stillborn child, but after he abandoned her to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, Callas gave up on life, retreating to her apartment in Paris, and becoming a recluse before dying at 53 from a heart attack.

Lupone never found either the emotional core and she ignored any aspects of Callas’ greatness. Callas’ Master Classes are available on CD, but I doubt Lupone bothered listening to them. Had she done so, she may have given a better performance.
At the 1997 Tony Awards, Dixie Carter, who replaced Lupone, talked about the joy she got from playing this character. Faye Dunaway bought the film rights and toured as Callas, but it’s doubtful a film will ever be made. Mike Nichols planned to make it with Meryl Streep, but the project died with him. It’d be difficult to watch the fair-skinned Streep play this Greek-American soprano for whom the term “diva” was created.

Kiss Me Kate

Kiss Me Kate is probably Cole Porter’s masterpiece. A superb blend of story and song, the show is based on observances of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne fighting backstage during a performance of The Taming of the Shrew. Bella and Sam Spewack’s libretto blends the highs and lows of backstage antics with Shakespeare’s comedy. The score features such great songs as “Too Darn Hot,” “So in Love (With You am I),” and “I Hate Men.” This was also Porter’s most successful show.

In 1999, Michael Blakemore directed a Broadway revival. However, the producers thought the book was dated, and hired John Guare to “fix” it. With the exception of adding “From This Moment On,” used in the MGM film version, Guare’s revision weakens the script, especially in the second act where Nixonian political attitudes show up uninvited.

Having never seen Kiss Me Kate onstage, I was excited to see Rachel York as Lilli/Kate and Rex Smith as Fred/Petruchio when the show came to the Ordway in 2001.
I’ve seen better bus and truck companies! This time, the energy was drained by Rex Smith. The audience could literally see that the entire cast was contemptuous toward him and the orchestrations were literally railroaded to keep him offstage as much as possible. Early in the story, his character is referred to as “a ham,” and Smith certainly was! An example of this was his rendition of “Were Thine That Special Face.” This is a seduction song but never once did Smith look at poor Rachel York, who was working so hard to overcome Smith’s antics. This same production was later filmed in London and broadcast on PBS with Brett Barrett replacing Smith. It was so much better than the Ordway production.

Who’s to Blame?

So where does the blame lie when actors perform like this? Because in many cases, the director doesn’t police the show after it opens, so most likely it’s the Company Manager or the Assistant Director, both of whom worked closely with the director, are far too busy to fix things gone wrong.

With Master Class, it’s clear that William Joseph Barnes couldn’t control Lupone, who’s renowned for her diva behavior, so he let her get away with playing the role her way. When it was reviewed, Vincent Canby in The New York Times, thought she’d been rushed into the role and needed more rehearsal, but I’m not sure that would’ve helped.

With Kiss Me, Kate, the blame is all Rex Smith’s doing. Blakemore had moved on to another project and once the show was on tour, believing his own publicity, Smith behaved poorly, alienating a cast and crew, who did whatever they could to salvage what was being done onstage.

What can we do about this? After all, it’s not fair that paying audiences should be confronted with an actor’s personal arrogance. One way is to walk out and demand your money back. I found it interesting that the My Fair Lady box office had closed before the interval, presumably to stop the demand for refunds. I decided that for the ticket price, I donated 110 pounds to the English National Opera.

Using the mail is another method of stopping this. I’ve sent letters to the addresses of theaters, whether to compliment a performer or to comment on a production. Emails are also effective. You may not get an answer, but your comments are certainly taken into consideration if they reach the appropriate party.

Finally, audiences need to be more discerning. Not everything you see deserves a standing ovation. I rarely stand for a production or actor. In fact, this summer, I saw five shows in London and one in Paris. The only time I stood was following the National Theater production of The Father and the Assassin, a remarkable play about Nathuram Godse, the man who murdered Mahatma Gandhi. While every show (except My Fair Lady) was exceptional, this was the only genuine standout!

Since the Pandemic, we’re thirsty for any theater, but it’s not fair to the audience to be subjected to unprofessional nonsense. Performers who are desperate to show their talent can do that without draining the positive energy from a show. All they need is a sure-handed director and Production Manager to control them.

Am I the only one who feels this way?