Richard Hamburger

Out with a ‘Lady’
Dallas’ Arts District Theater takes a graceful final bow with ‘My Fair Lady’

By Mark Lowry / Star-Telegram

My Fair Lady is the ultimate story of transformation. And Dallas Theater Center artistic director Richard Hamburger couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate show for the final production at downtown Dallas’ Arts District Theater.

With the exception, perhaps, of G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalion, the basis for Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s landmark musical.

No, definitely My Fair Lady. If only to see what Hamburger will do with the musical masterpiece, following, as it does, the director’s exquisite stagings of South Pacific and Guys and Dolls in this same dynamic space.

This musical trifecta ranks as the three most accomplished productions I’ve seen of those shows. But the praise has as much to do with the space as with Hamburger’s artistry.

My Fair Lady closes a chapter for the large metal barn, which was built in 1984 and will be razed later this year. Its phoenix will be the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, a two-venue complex scheduled to open in 2009. When that happens, the Dallas Theater Center will move from its longtime home base at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Turtle Creek into the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, an 11-story, 74,915-square-feet building with a “stacked” vertical design created by renowned architect Rem Koolhaas.

Like the Arts District Theater, the Wyly will boast a flexible stage configuration. Office and storage space will be above and around the theater. As thrilling as it all sounds, it’ll be tough, in my opinion, to match the natural energy that flows through the ADT. Blame it on nostalgia.

At my East Texas high school, the English class traveled yearly to see the Dallas Theater Center’s productions of A Christmas Carol, and the memory of Marley soaring above the audience and into Scrooge’s crib is indelible. We also trekked over for then-artistic director Adrian Hall’s adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men in 1987, still one of my favorite memories.

That was pre-Hamburger. But my theatergoing experiences from the late ‘90s on have proven that the big ADT stage provides literal and artistic room that an innovative -- and sometimes radical -- director like Hamburger needs.

His South Pacific plopped audiences right on the beach. His Our Town (2002) incorporated a large and startling scenic element into Thornton Wilder’s non-set of Grover’s Corner. At 2003’s Big Love, audiences witnessed actors hurling themselves onto a large mat. And, in what might have been Hamburger’s most unorthodox staging, (and least successful, artistically speaking), the ADT allowed for an airy Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1998). Imagine the Tyrone family drama not unfolding in the claustrophobic confines of Eugene O’Neill’s precisely outlined living room.

What gall! (At least someone around here has it.)

The thrust-stage configuration for these shows invited patrons to feel at one with the action, in a way shows at large proscenium houses strive for but almost never achieve. It’s an experience similar to seeing a show in an intimate space such as Circle Theatre or Stage West’s former University Drive home -- only the ADT is exponentially larger and has a ceiling so high it might as well be an outdoor amphitheater.

Which brings us to the theater’s swan song.

A co-production with Oregon’s Portland Center Stage, My Fair Lady gets, like Eliza Doolittle, a makeover. Not an extreme one, mind you, but enough for Hamburger to make another memorable impression.

Like most theaters, the ADT’s staging area has a horizontal feel, like a soccer field. But this production is more about the vertical.

The configuration is surprisingly traditional: proscenium, with the audience in a horseshoe arrangement. Scenic designer John Coyne’s three-tiered opera house auditorium mirrors the viewer’s experience. In the show’s opening sequence, the natty opera patrons leave their boxes and descend onto the street among Eliza (Sherry Boone) and her fellow vendors. Later, in Henry Higgins’ (Martin Kildare) home, the box tiers double as multilevel staging areas.

It’s the show’s first attempt to juxtapose the two classes -- upper and lower, educated and not -- of which the story speaks. The musical’s stage directions express that opera patrons are leaving a show, but here, we actually make a visual connection.

Also, this My Fair Lady is the 1959 two-piano version by the musical’s original dance arranger, Trude Rittman, created for theaters that couldn’t afford big orchestras. The Theater Center has the money for that, but the simpler piano score fits into Hamburger’s scheme of boiling the show down to its dramatic essence. Also gone is the typically huge cast. Here it’s only 10 actors, with six of them skillfully playing multiple roles.

But Hamburger’s biggest break from tradition is his choice for Eliza. Boone is an accomplished performer who was understudy to Tony winner Audra MacDonald in the title role of Broadway’s Marie Christine. The fact that Boone is African-American rarely raises an eyebrow, despite the casting of a white actor in the role of her father, Alfred P. Doolittle (James Brennan in the show’s most appealing performance). In a subtle way, putting the genteel Higgins at odds with an uneducated black cockney adds resonance to the show’s theme of classism.

Boone’s vibrato-laden operatic soprano is interesting but borders on off-putting and comes across as too trained. It’s difficult to imagine that her character was ever an illiterate vagabond, and that’s with disbelief suspended.

But how she does take charge. Her Eliza is never less than an equal sparring partner for Higgins, who, as portrayed by the excellent Kildare, makes haughty appear oddly sexy. Their relationship is the crux of the show, and Hamburger ensures that Lerner and Loewe’s -- and Shaw’s -- intentions are considered. This is not a love story but one of mutual understanding and eventually, respect.

It’s a terrific note on which to memoralize the Arts District Theater and to dream that the Wyly will be an equally interesting space; a place to provide Hamburger with the breathing room he -- and his provocative ideas -- need.

Wouldn’t that be loverly?

© Richard Hamburger, Theater Director      Site design and maintenance by Amy Lacy.