Saturday, February 13, 2010
Last Thursday night “My Fair Lady” was transformed. It became Our Fair Lady – which is to say, Beersheba’s Fair Lady. The whole production was nothing short of amazing.
Beersheba’s local theater group – LOGON, Light Opera Group of the Negev – now in its 29th year, opened their 2010 musical, My Fair Lady, last week, and will now play ten performances around the country before returning to Beersheba for two final performances in mid-March. This performance was a smash hit, no question about that.
I liked it so much I may go back to see it again – and I’m sure I won’t be the only one to want a second bite. My Fair Lady usually ranks as everyone’s favorite musical, and it’s easy to see why. The delightful music, the glorious costumes -- coupled with the eternal promise that transformation from ugly duckling to glorious swan can happen to any of us -- is pretty heady stuff. This is just the fifth LOGON performance I’ve seen, but it was clear that this show was the biggest audience-pleaser I’ve seen. All through the show, the full-to-capacity crowd didn't just applaud their approval, but -- at least where I was sitting – several sang along, too. It was fine – it’s that kind of show – something so familiar and so much loved, everyone wants to be a part of it.
One of the potential problems in presenting such a well-known show is that before you even start, you’re faced with an almost impossible standard of performance. I was guilty of that myself – when the show first began, I was expecting LOGON’s ‘Eliza’, Ruth Reyes Cohen, to be playing Audrey Hepburn, and Eric Issacson to be playing Rex Harrison. That seemed perfectly normal. I’d never seen the Broadway play, but the video of the 1964 film was a family favorite – I’ve probably watched it a dozen times. So, of course. In my mind, “Eliza” was the exquisite Audrey Hepburn. How could she be anything else?
It took only a few minutes to see the error of my ways – the moment Ruth as Eliza began to sing, “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” I realized that this Eliza was a very different creature indeed. This wasn’t the ethereal Audrey Hepburn up there, this was a live, flesh and blood “Eliza”, a lady with not just a crystal-clear voice but also with a robust earthiness that transformed the character entirely. Ruth didn’t play Audrey – Ruth was Eliza. She took the role and made it her own.
As I listened to her incredible singing voice and saw her dancing at the same time, I remembered that Miss Audrey, in the film I loved so much, didn’t actually sing a single note. Hepburn moved her lips while the actual singing was being done by someone named Marni Nixon. That’s very different from this performance – here, our own ‘Eliza’ was both singing and dancing, which is a great deal harder to do. In that moment, she became our “fair lady”, a new immigrant to Israel just like the rest of us, except that she was doing it all, and with incredible ease.
I was lucky enough to be able to interview both Ruth and Bernie Goodman, who plays Eliza’s father, the Cockney dustman Alfie Doolittle. (Read it here: http://www.jpost.com/ArtsAndCulture/FoodAndWine/Article.aspx?id=167831)
Without repeating Ruth’s whole fascinating story, one thing she said stuck with me. Ruth always had aspirations of becoming a professional singer and actor, and was trained in both classical music and jazz. But when she was considering moving to Israel, her (Jewish!) voice teacher told her, “Don’t do it! It will be the end of your career – move to New York or California instead. In Israel, there won’t be anything for you, there won’t be anywhere to grow.”
Good for us, Ruth ignored that advice, and came – but clearly, she could have succeeded anywhere at all, California, New York, wherever she had chosen.
Which is one of the things that’s so impressive about the LOGON crew – almost all of them are immigrants. That’s changed slightly, in recent years, as the Israeli-born sons and daughter of the original group have joined. But still, most of the incredibly talented senior players are all people who were born elsewhere, and made the conscious decision to move to Israel, to cast their lot with the rest of us here, with all that entails. I have no doubt at all that any of them could have succeeded brilliantly anywhere in the rest of the world, but they chose to come here. That means something to me.
The after-the-performance-chat outside the theater was that everyone fell in love with Bernie Goodman, the real-life Cockney who stepped into the role of Alfie Doolittle, playing the ‘cock-a-hootie’ scoundrel to perfection.
One of the things Bernie said in the interview was that he refused to put himself in the same category as Stanley Holloway, the British actor who played the role both on Broadway and in the film. “I’m working with a retired hazan, cantor, who came from London,” Bernie said. “He’s coaching me in voice exercises and offered some advice, too. ‘Don’t even think of Stanley Holloway. Portray the character yourself’”, he said, which was good advice. After all, Bernie Goodman’s credentials for playing “Alfie” are just as good as Holloway’s. Holloway started life as a fish monger in Billingsgate, then began his stage career as a comic before becoming a star of the London stage. He gained a US reputation when George Cukor, the director of the film, cast him as Alfred Doolittle – after James Cagney turned the role down.
Bernie, for his part, quit school and started life as a teenage market trader, trading everything he could, fabrics to food. He ultimately sold his company, did an unhappy stint as someone’s employee, then moved on to being a London taxi driver, where he spent 33 years before moving to Israel just a couple of years ago.
Through it all, he also pursued an acting career. “I saw an advert in the Evening Standard,” he said. “It read, ‘study to be an actor’. My father, while he was in the RAF, was an entertainer as well, so the idea of studying acting sounded appealing. It was a part time drama school, so I went, and did very well. I stayed two years and won several awards, ‘Most promising actor’ and ‘Most promising voice’ among them. I played in a lot of theaters, did some interesting work, but finding professional roles wasn’t easy because of the equity system. There are a lot of talented people out there, and maybe only 10% have work at any one time. I thought of doing amateur work there in London, but they all had Saturday afternoon matinees, and working on Shabbat was something I wouldn’t do.”
London’s loss was Israel’s gain – and if you want to read where Ruth Reyes Cohen came from, you’ll have to read the Jerusalem Post article. (Now that’s a story! Ruth's personal story could be a play all by itself.)
It wasn’t just Ruth and Bernie who made this incredible show happen, of course – the entire cast was excellent, especially Erik Isaacson playing Henry Higgins. One of the things I hadn’t realized, in seeing the film version, was how funny this play really is. It’s hilarious – and much of the credit for that goes to Erik, because of his perfect comedic timing. He was just a delight – perfect in every way. As was young Iggy Abilia, who played the young swain Freddy Eynsford-Hill to perfection – what a voice! He was just marvelous. In the original play, Eliza married Freddie – all you have to do is look at (and listen to) Iggy Abilia in the role and you’d understand that with no problem at all.
And if Amiel Shotz didn’t exist, LOGON would have to invent him. As a Scotland-born actor, Amiel arrived in Israel in 1965 and has been onstage virtually ever since. In this production, he played Colonel Pickering, and -- as in every role Amiel plays – it appears to have been written for him. He’s amazing.
Apologies for singling out just a few of the actors, because every one of them was great. And it wasn’t just the actors who made that performance, either, it was the whole package – the orchestra, the choreography, the sets and costumes, too.
I wish you all could have seen it – but since some of you are too far away, I’ll just go again, to make up for it. (For any of you here in Israel, there’s more information at http://www.negevlightopera.com/