You may grow accustomed to her face, but more likely it's her singing you will come to care about. Jodi Benson, who supplied the enchanted voice of Disney's Little Mermaid and who starred on Broadway as the tomboy heroine in "Crazy for You," is Eliza Doolittle now, the dirty-cheeked flower-vendor turned fair lady in the classic Lerner & Loewe musical, now through Sunday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
This dependable if uninspired "My Fair Lady" hits all the required notes without surprising anyone at anytime. For such a vocally gifted performer, Benson gives a terribly busy performance, facially and physically. She grimaces and smirks and pops her eyes. As the flower-seller, she cannot walk but stomps across the stage. As the refined Eliza, she stands like an automaton. She is an actress who is truly determined to give a good performance, a hard worker, a good singer. But she never connects deep down, where a true interpretation should come from.
The same can be said for Ian Ogilvy, as Henry Higgins, the linguistics expert who teaches Eliza to speak impeccably, proving his theories about class barriers in the bargain. Ogilvy conveys that Higgins is smug but not that his over-confidence is attractive. When he sings, he seems a slave to the orchestra, which rushes ahead in its own enclosed universe.
The problematic sound in the Alex, an otherwise attractive theater, is probably due to insensitive amplification and not a design flaw in the house itself. Although the acoustics have been improved a bit since the last musical at the theater, the orchestra still sounds piped in and disconnected from the singers, adding to the feeling that the productions there are packaged for consumer enjoyment with as much soul and finesse as a well-wrapped candy bar. There are times when you would swear you were watching a really elaborate karaoke routine.
Robert Mandan is vividly good looking with his white hair and strong face, but he is too fatuous as Col. Pickering, the stuffy but kind accomplice to Higgins. Of the principals, Tony Tanner stands out as Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle, the dustman-philosopher who captures Higgins' attention with his take-no-prisoners logic. This is a pint-sized and unabashedly nasty Doolittle, one with mean eyes, who radiates lewdness with every gesture. Still, Tanner possesses a self-containment that is in welcome relief from the signaling going on in the acting all around him. He seems to know something that no one else knows.
His big Act 2 number, "Get Me to the Church on Time," is staged with a robust rough-and-tumble esprit by director-choreographer Jon Engstrom. It is the highlight of the show. Patricia Fraser is extremely graceful as Higgins' dear old mother.
The production's incomplete or cut-rate quality is visually summed up in the first act, right after Eliza sings "I Could Have Danced All Night" and then is hustled off to bed by the singing maids. They have no bedroom for Eliza, though. The maids tuck her in on the divan in Higgins' sitting room. No wonder she flees the household.
* "My Fair Lady," Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Ave., Glendale, tonight at 8; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $32.50-$35.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 3 hours.
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Jodi Benson: Eliza Doolittle
Ray Benson: Freddy Eynsford-Hill
Laura Gardner: Mrs. Eynsford-Hill
Robert Mandan: Col. Pickering
Ian Ogilvy: Henry Higgins
Tony Tanner: Alfred P. Doolittle
Bette Rae: Mrs. Pearce
Patricia Fraser: Mrs. Higgins
With: Kim Arnett, Richard Balin, Michelle Berti, Elna Binckes, Amy Bodnar, Julie Connors, Larry Daggett, Christopher Dietrich, Laura Gardener, Phil Gold, Adam Grey, Amy Griffin, Tom Hildebrand, Randy Hills, Katie Jensen, Susan Jordan, Matt Kubicek, Robert Marra, Karyn Overstreet, Glenn Sabalza, Darrell Sandeen, Suzanne Soddy, Alan M-L Wager.
M. Edelman presents a Theater League Production. Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe. Based on George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion." Directed and choreographed by Jon Engstrom. Costumes Cathleen Edwards. Lights Kim Killingsworth. Sound Mark Cowburn. Musical director Lloyd Cooper. Production supervisor John M. Galo.