Arts & Theater

‘My Fair Lady’ opens Sacramento’s Music Circus season

The cast of “My Fair Lady, with Paul Schoeffler, center, runs through a scene earlier this week.
The cast of “My Fair Lady, with Paul Schoeffler, center, runs through a scene earlier this week. rbyer@sacbee.com

Actor Paul Schoeffler seems so calm and unpretentiously confident it’s difficult to believe he’s ever had anxiety about performing. Nonetheless, he said, he felt like “a deer in the headlights” the first time he performed as Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” at Music Circus.

That was in 2001 in the old tent, but even then Schoeffler had been doing for a long time what he does at a high level. Schoeffler has several major role Broadway credits, national tours and seven Music Circus shows (from 1997 through 2007), in his past. He originated the role of Hertz on Broadway in “Rock of Ages” in 2009 and stayed with the show for most of its six-year run of more than 2,000 performances.

Still, the role of Higgins, in the Lerner and Loewe masterpiece based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” represents a significant challenge for the seasoned Schoeffler.

“It’s huge in terms of what you have to assimilate, just to memorize,” he said. “I worry sometimes about just remembering all of it.”

Schoeffler’s working with a longtime collaborator, Music Circus artistic director Glenn Casale, who directed that previous “My Fair Lady.” They’ve done numerous shows together including “Peter Pan,” with Schoeffler as Captain Hook/Mr. Darling, which he’ll also revisit later this season.

Casale directs in a fresh, unencumbered way. Schoeffler, for his part, said this “My Fair Lady” already feels transformed in part by Casale’s more-relaxed approach in which he encourages actors to find their own way into characters.

“I was too much of a bully the first time I did this because (Henry Higgins) can be just stentorian, and he puts everybody down. He’s smug. He’s all of those things. But there’s other things going on, too, that I kind of glossed over,” Schoeffler said. “I’m thinking about those things differently.”

Aside from Schoeffler, there’s an all-new cast in this revival, which creates a different set of character dynamics for Schoeffler/Higgins to deal with. Glory Crampton plays Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl whom Higgins will transform into a well-bred young woman. There are two actors on hiatus from Broadway productions: Stephen Berger, playing Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, is on leave from “Kinky Boots,” and Jason Forbach, playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill, is on break from “Les Misérables.”

There’s been plenty of revelations in rehearsals.

“Bill Parry, who’s playing Pickering, has brought this whole new thing to it, and it’s completely different from anything I’ve ever seen,” Schoeffler said.

“Then Steven Berger, who’s playing Doolittle, came in, and he just takes over the room. He’s sitting at my desk scoping things out, and we’re all going, ‘This is kinda cool.’ It was this huge discovery that changed the dynamic of the whole thing.”

Even though “My Fair Lady” is on most musical aficionados’ all-time greatest list, there are people who have never seen it or haven’t seen it in some time. Schoeffler expects this production will look and feel fresh to everyone.

“Glenn and I were talking last night about the audience, even though they may know the piece, is still hearing it for the first time,” the actor said. “This is all new information for people especially if it’s something this rich in language.”

The text is, of course, based on Shaw’s play, which was particularly distinctive in its central relationship and notoriously difficult to adapt as it didn’t fit any romantic comedy models.

“It’s got a music and a rhythm to it,” Schoeffler said of Alan Jay Lerner’s book. “That doesn’t mean to rush it, but to enjoy it. That’s been one of the big discoveries revisiting this piece: that you can take your time. Being able to luxuriate in the language.”

Schoeffler said the perspective of 14 more years of life also puts him in a very different personal and professional place than he was when he did the role before. As he works on the play now it seems even richer to him.

“You really appreciate the genius of the guys who wrote this because they’re thinking on such a deep level in terms of their craft, but it’s not immediately apparent to you,” Schoeffler said.

“They’re unbelievable how they thought this thing through so specifically. When you’re onstage you feel how the material carries you.”

My Fair Lady

  • What: Music Circus opens its season with Lerner and Loewe’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”
  • When: June 9-14. Performances 7:30 p.m Tuesday-Sunday; 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
  • Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento
  • Tickets: $40 - $83
  • Information: (916) 557-1999, SacramentoMusicCircus.com
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