Anyone planning to attend My Fair Lady, the current offering at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, might take note of the scarlet carpet that gets unspooled late in the first act. It's your standard VIP rug, nothing you haven't seen before. Yet all the sumptuous simplicity that emanates from this skeletal, efficient and surprisingly refreshing production is crystallized in this one roll of fabric.
The carpet also helps to finesse one of the show's most exasperating flaws. What flaw is that? Just this: My Fair Lady may be one of the most successful musical plays of the twentieth century, but -- burdened by an excess of riches -- it doesn't know how to end Act One.
Here's the setup. Henry Higgins, linguist and irascible old bachelor, spends the better part of the first act brusquely teaching Eliza Doolittle, hopelessly gauche young Covent Garden flower seller, how to speak the King's English. After arduous effort the verbal transformation is complete. Eliza is about to depart for an embassy ball at Buckingham Palace, where she is to be palmed off as a member of the upper crust.
But Eliza has transformed more than her diction. Now this former guttersnipe regally enters the room, an elegant vision. Even Higgins is touched by her ethereal presence. He starts for the door, stops, returns to Eliza, and extends his arm. The unexpected gesture is sheer theater magic, guaranteed to elicit goose bumps from any theatergoer with a pulse. As the music swells, Henry and Eliza exit together. It is a foolproof Act One curtain.
Except that it's not the end of Act One. The act continues on through the embassy ball, where Eliza is presented to the Queen of Transylvania. But we viewers don't care about the queen; we know she's just a chorus member in a fancy dress. Our emotional investment is with Henry and Eliza. Instead we're expected to be impressed by distractions -- by crystal chandeliers and lots of people strutting around in fake jewels.
But the Rep is mounting a lean, mean My Fair Lady, economically performed by just ten actors; the lush score is played by just two pianos. Here there are no superfluous extras, no fake jewels. Here inference is more important than trimmings. You need to suggest an embassy ball? Forget chandeliers; instead simply roll out that red carpet. The queen might be an irrelevancy. But the sight of Eliza, a vision in ivory gliding up that island of red -- if Act One has to end at the ball, this is the way to do it.
As directed by Susan V. Booth, this less-is-more production is a celebration of details. Attention has been paid to every moment. Late in Act Two, for instance, Eliza pays an urgent visit to Henry's mother. As written, the two women sit and sip tea. But in this outing Mrs. Higgins is revealed as a painter -- and we even get to see what she's painting. In a production whose unit set is bathed in shades of black and white, that splash of color on her canvas enlivens the scene. The canvas is an incidental addition, but layer a production with scores of such additions, and it assumes a new resonance, a new vigor, indeed a new life.
It should be noted that not everything benefits from this vest-pocket approach. An exuberant production number like "Get Me to the Church on Time" cries out for more bodies. More something. Yet every scene -- even those without songs -- is infused with such fluidity (no small feat in a show derived from George Bernard Shaw's verbose Pygmalion), one senses that choreographer Daniel Pelzig contributed a great deal more than merely the dance steps.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Crista Moore's Eliza begins to come into her own midway through Act One, then finds her true voice in the final reprise of the radiant "I Could Have Danced All Night." From that point on, Moore veritably blossoms. She grows ever more assured and nuanced as the evening proceeds. Neal Benari's Henry Higgins is solid, resolute, reliable. If he lacks the infuriating idiosyncrasy that lies dormant in the role, we can take solace in the professionalism of his performance.
But here's the production's happiest surprise: When stripped of its trappings, My Fair Lady is revealed as an ensemble piece. Colonel Pickering (the delightful Russell Leib) and Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper (Linda Stephens), two characters who usually play second fiddle to Henry and Eliza, are integral to the story's forward movement. Stephens, who also doubles as Mrs. Higgins, has a wondrous ability to instill humanity into two underwritten roles.
Perhaps the ultimate beneficiary of this bare-bones approach is Alan Jay Lerner. Because there's no orchestra to drown out the singers, Lerner's lyrics -- crisp, witty and precise -- take center stage. Classic songs like the buoyant "On the Street Where You Live" and the poignant "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" recall a graceful Broadway theater in which Lerner was the crown prince. Happily, for one brief shining moment the essence of that lost glory is alive again on the Rep stage.