For all that Ashland audiences are often very, very theater-literate, in recent years they’ve become absurdly generous when it comes to standing ovations. At least in theatrical circles (as opposed to TV game-show studios, for instance), a standing ovation should reflect truly exceptional accomplishment, should recognize performances at the very pinnacle of the theatrical experience. In short, they ought to be rare. If every show gets a standing ovation every night, the worth of the honor decreases. (The Heart of Robin Hood got one earlier in the weekend; as entertaining as the show was, it did not deserve it.)
This past evening’s performance of My Fair Lady also got a standing ovation – which was, for once, entirely and unequivocally deserved. The production and the performance really were and are that exceptional, and Amanda Dehnert (credited as both stage and music director) deserves full marks for conceiving and assembling a truly memorable experience.
What’s perhaps most striking about this staging is its intimacy. The set is, essentially, a theatrical rehearsal hall, its rear occupied with a few rows of metal bleachers with a pair of grand pianos set in front of them, and the ensemble is, in effect, portraying a cast of actors engaged in a run-through of the show they’ve been hired to perform. This does not preclude occasionally elaborate costuming and choreography, but it constrains it to an intriguing and surprisingly effective degree. Two violinists, both also part of the acting ensemble (and one a high-school-aged student performer, every bit as polished as anyone in the company), are the only complement to the pianists, but this cast doesn’t need more complex orchestration to drive the familiar score and songs.
The two leads – Jonathan Haugen as Professor Higgins and Rachael Warren as Eliza – are both outstanding on all points; in particular, if the only Higgins you’ve seen is Rex Harrison, having a skilled vocalist in the role is a revelation. Understudy Dee Maaske was wonderfully warm as Prof. Higgins’ mother, and Ken Robinson as Freddy rightfully steals every scene he’s in. But this production belongs as much to its ensemble as it does to its leads, and there is no moment when it’s less than captivating, from the pre-opening minutes wherein members of the ensemble are going through physical warm-ups on the set to the final moment between Higgins and Eliza, hauntingly staged halfway up the stairs alongside the audience.
I’ve been attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for almost four decades now, which is long enough both to get used to OSF’s high standards for both creative and technical craft and to get a little jaded about that standard. But I can honestly say that My Fair Lady is among the very best and most memorable shows I’ve seen in that long series of summer tours. This one’s not just worth the price of the theater ticket, it justifies the travel expense, the hotel room, and the best dinner you can find in town.