What a Broadway weekend!: 'St. Joan' and 'My Fair Lady'!

ZINMAN27
Left: Condola Rashad in "St. Joan" at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Right: Harry Haden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose in "My Fair Lady" at the Lincoln Center Theatre.

Seeing Saint Joan and My Fair Lady on Broadway in one weekend is a thrilling and remarkable experience: two great works of theatrical literature that are, actually, both by the mighty George Bernard Shaw (MFL is, of course, based on his play, Pygmalion). Obviously, Shaw didn’t write the musical; the also mighty Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) did.  The thrill lies in relishing two such smart, demanding, and altogether entertaining shows. 

The remarkable part lies more in the cultural moment than onstage: The guys are ganging up on two young women. The guys, in the case of Joan, are formidable opponents:  a king, an archbishop and a selection of the power elite of medieval France and England whose weapons are religion and sophistry. In the case of Eliza Doolittle, the guys are an erudite professor, Henry Higgins, and his pal, Colonel Pickering. They wield different weapons: intellectual acuity and snobbery.

But one great show at a time.

Saint Joan 

Shaw’s famous Preface begins with this perfect introduction to his complex character:

“…a village girl from the Vosges, was born about 1412; burnt for heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery in 1431; rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456; designated venerable in 1904; declared Blessed in 1908; and finally canonized in 1920. She is the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar, and the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages. ... She was the pioneer of rational dressing for women … and she refused to accept the specific woman’s lot, and dressed and fought and lived as men did.”

Condola Rashad is a deeply engaging Joan; her elegant rendering of this difficult young woman is made especially notable by her eloquent and graceful hands that speak volumes. As a warrior she swaggers, but she can also be adorably girlish and naïve.  She is, with one minor exception, the only female, in this mighty cast of powerful actors playing an array of powerful men, representing the Church and the State. Joan is crushed between theology and the law, and along the way invents Protestantism and nationalism.

The stunning set, designed by Scott Pask, is both spare and grand; the stage is filled with many many golden pipes, as though the entire proceedings take place inside an unimaginably huge organ.

Who would have dreamed that a three-hour-long debate about religion would be so compelling to a contemporary audience — and so amusing? The wittiness of the language as well as the wittiness of the performances — a raised eyebrow here, a pompous swish of clerical robes there — reveal that irresistible Shavian charm as well as his genius for provocative argument.

Under Daniel Sullivan’s profound as well as clever direction — the stagehands who move the furniture are dressed as nuns — the focus remains sharply and clearly on the debate. This is a play almost without any action except for the superb talking. Joan’s final monologue about freedom, echoing Antigone’s 2000 years before, is deeply moving, as is her devastating line, as she spits out the words to the Inquisitor, “Light your fire.”

The reptilian aspects of politics — both medieval and contemporary — bring home Joan’s words, “The world is too wicked for me.” This new production of Saint Joan is a splendid attack on that enduring wickedness.

St. Joan. Through June 10 at Manhattan Theatre Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, New York. Tickets: $65-145. Information: 212-239-6200, saintjoanbroadway.com.

My Fair Lady

All the feminist fretting in advance of the Lincoln Center revival of this beloved musical was needless: Shaw was always on Eliza’s side, and with  Bartlett Sher’s brilliant directorial decisions (the final moment is — no spoilers — gaspingly fine), the bullies and dolts are left in the melodic dust.

Lauren Ambrose is a delightful Eliza; she has a soaring voice (her renditions of “Just You Wait” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” are delectable), and she provides flawless accents in a plot that’s about accents.   Harry Hadden-Paton is a superb and witty bully, oblivious of anyone’s feelings but his own; his mission is to create a woman, to make Eliza, a cockney flowergirl, into an elegant lady who can pass for a duchess at the Embassy Ball. His method is to teach her how to speak in a country where class distinctions are based on accents. He actually sings rather than recites some of the best word-play songs, including “Why Can’t the English.”

His fellow phoneticist is Colonel Pickering (Allan Corduner), a gentler bully but no less one. And a rougher bully is  Eliza’s drunk of  a father, Alfred P. Doolittle (played by the show-stopping Norbert Leo Butz), who sells Eliza to Professor Higgins. His big production number is the rollicking “Get Me to the Church On Time” that pretty much brings down the house.

Dame Diana Rigg, who played Eliza Doolittle in 1974 in a production of Pygmalion, is now Professor Higgins’ mother: a soignee society matron with contempt for both her son and the Colonel, a “pretty pair of babies … playing with your live doll.”  Even Freddy, an aristocratic fool who falls in love with Eliza, is as emotionally stunted as the rest of the men in Eliza’s life (Jordan Donica offers a beautiful and full-throated “On the Street Where You Live”).

The huge cast is full of great voices and impeccable diction; their timing, especially in the wondrous “Ascot Gavotte,” is hilarious perfection. As are their stunning costumes — all praise to Catherine Zuber — and the magnificent changing sets, designed with all the immense size of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont stage in mind.

Well, I could have raved all night, but suffice it to say that I nearly danced out of Lincoln Center, humming all the way home.

My Fair Lady. Through Jan. 6, 2019 at Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, 150 W. 65th Street, New York. Tickets: $97-187. Information: 212-239-6200, lct.org/shows/my-fair-lady.