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As Long as We Remember...

November 9, 2007

"Fair Lady" and "The Scourge of God"

Roy Meachum

Lisa OHare stars as Eliza Doolittle with Christopher Cazenove as Professor Henry Higgins in the Baltimores Hippodrome Theater presentation of My Fair Lady. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Truly exhilarating theater is happening in both ends of our performing arts world. Baltimore's Hippodrome hosts the best revival of "My Fair Lady" since the musical's original production broke every record in sight, a little more than 50 years ago.

And at the other end, Washington Shakespeare Theatre's version of "Tamburlaine" has started a Christopher Marlowe cycle that blows away the lingering remnants of the National Capitol's reputation as a sleepy backwater cultural swamp.

About "Fair Lady," there's little to say: Sell the family jewels and farm if you must, but get yourself to Baltimore and the Hippodrome before this smashing hit pulls up stakes and departs a week from next Sunday.

This is the revival that could be better than the original and I saw them both. Visiting New York to meet my closest Army buddy's new wife, I was handed tickets 12 days after "My Fair Lady" opened, to tumultuous praise for all concerned.

As you can understand the only way I got seats was by knowing someone: my Army buddy was Eddie Fisher and his wife was Debbie Reynolds.

Both Eddie and I were out of the service by then. I worked at the Washington Post television station, and after two years in uniform, he had his career back on track, and it was zooming. His celebrity brought the tickets from someone I never knew who - trying to get on his better side. It paid off for me.

I walked out of Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theatre that March night, in 1956, absolutely benumbed. Having been taken to my first play at the age of 8 and a real stage buff ever since, I had never seen anything like the virtual perfection in musical theatre I witnessed that night. The score and the book soared. The performances were impeccable.

Insisting replacements come exactly as the original stars is not one of my failings. About the current Baltimore production, I can say Liza O'Hare's Eliza looks like a cross between the stage's Julie Andrews and the film's Audrey Hepburn.

Her nemesis, Christopher Cazenove's Professor Henry Higgins, grumps, makes biting sarcastic remarks and cuts the figure as an all-out bore, as did Rex Harrison. His hair hides under a Harrison toupee. But I doubt this living British actor could be as nasty and querulous off stage as the now dead one was.

In the production, especially the choreography and the scenery, my mind brings no valid comparison. But after 50 years, no one expects them to stay the same. The new versions' dancing and sets beat the socks off 1956's original.

This is a more agile, athletic cast that manages in the Ascot race scene to brilliantly emulate Toulouse-Lautrec's 19th century dandies. Miss O'Hare makes of the study divans and sofas bouncing trampolines.

Of course, the score has mellowed into classics, every song. My companion spent the drive back to Frederick singing each cherished lyric, again and again.

While I began by saying there's little to say, my enthusiasm for this refurbished, more beautiful "My Fair Lady" carried me away. It lights up the skies over the Hippodrome and Baltimore's Eutaw Street only through the following weekend.

What a pity if its leaves town without your attendance. It's your loss.

My most-admired contemporary director and producer notched at least a pair of triumphs this week. "Tamburlaine" is the first show in the Washington Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Hall, on F street NW, around the corner from its first home.

All by himself, although with considerable help on-stage and off, Michael Kahn has created Washington's first thinking person's performing center. And he's done so with stunningly gorgeous productions that put the wow back into WOW!

In the several seasons we have ventured down to the former Landsburgh store, Mr. Kahn productions and their presentations have left my senses literally reeling; none more so than my intellectual perception.

In the original Landsburgh Theatre, even when evenings fell short of the level of expectation he set, I came away with joy of the insights uncovered by Mr. Kahn and the directors he selected.

"Tamburlaine" has very little to do with the real Timor the Lame who built massive pyramids of skulls cut from conquered people; 90,000 in Baghdad alone.

As the lead, Avery Brooks wears stomping boots and bounds all over the stage, pouncing here and leaping there. The actor's athletic prowess is essential to the production, which moves at a very rapid pace; actors pour from the wings, down ladders and around a balcony. There is little pause for words and that makes sense.

Kit Marlowe was the predecessor and tutor to William Shakespeare. Totally unlike the Bard, he had a few scant years after completing a secret mission for Queen Elizabeth; he wrote less than a dozen works before a dragger driven through his eye did him in.

His death has never been settled, the argument among scholars extended to claims he was the "real Shakespeare." His most frequently quoted lines are from a passionate Shepherd: "Come live with me and be my love..."

In "Tamburlaine," supposedly his first play, the poet set out to even scores in situations no longer recalled. His Turkish-speaking Mongol conquers much of the known world, including Egypt and Constantinople, which the real Timor never saw.

Aside from his impressive, fiercely focusing star, Director Kahn has crafted a model example of what is called an ensemble production. Actors grab the spotlight and the audience for intense moments, only to disappear when their moments finish.

Holding the evening together is Michael Kahn's sense of pageantry. The players for the most part do not simply move across stage: they float upon silken banners that part to reveal more rich colors and treasures. There is little mortal about the momentum that rolls the performance along.

"Tamburlaine" amounts to a heady feast for anyone whose appetite feeds off stagecraft. As everything I have seen attached to Michael Kahn's name and signature, the Washington Shakespeare Theatre cycle of Christopher Marlowe's plays launched with a booming triumph.

The historical tragedy of "Edward II" joins "Tamburlaine" in repertory this weekend.

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