Sunday, March 02, 2008

Two Theater Outings

I returned from Dallas late Friday night.

Last week was a long week for me, and I was glad to be back home.

Joshua stayed with my parents while I was gone, so Josh had a much better week than I did.

Josh and I did not do much on Saturday. We ran errands, and took care of necessary things around the apartment.

Late Saturday afternoon, Josh and I and my parents went downtown to attend a performance of “My Fair Lady” at the Orpheum Theater. We had an early dinner downtown before the show.

The Orpheum Theater is one of three grand old theaters in downtown Minneapolis, all dating from the early 20th Century, which have been fully restored and which are now used for touring Broadway productions.

Last month we went downtown to attend a performance of “Sweeney Todd” at the State Theater, another of the grand old theaters in Minneapolis, and at the time I wrote about the history of the State Theater.

The history of the Orpheum Theater is virtually identical to that of the State Theater. It, too, opened in 1921, during the great post-World War I boom in the Upper Midwest. Like the State Theater, the Orpheum was built as a Vaudeville house, at the then-enormous cost of one million dollars. The Marx Brothers were part of the opening bill.

With the decline of Vaudeville, the Orpheum became a movie palace in 1927. It remained a movie palace until 1959, when it converted to a house for touring Broadway productions.

In 1988, the city bought the theater, and shortly thereafter a $10 million restoration began. The stage was substantially enlarged in order to accommodate the most elaborate of modern Broadway productions.

The most notable feature of the auditorium is a 15-foot, 2000-pound chandelier beneath the domed ceiling, itself lined with 30,000 leaves of silver. The restored theater seats 2600 patrons.

The Orpheum Theater is today’s Twin Cities venue for the most complicated touring productions. It reopened in 1994 with a production of “Miss Saigon”, and has since hosted the world premiere productions of the stage musicals “Victor/Victoria”, “Beauty And The Beast” and “The Lion King”.

This touring production of “My Fair Lady” originated in London in 2001. Produced by Cameron McIntosh, directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Matthew Bourne, this production enjoyed a long and profitable run in the West End.

My middle brother and I almost attended a performance of this production in 2002, solely because the role of Professor Higgins was being played at the time by Anthony Andrews, but we elected to go see Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” that night instead. Our evening enduring “The Mousetrap” was one of the most gruesome nights of our lives.

The program booklet for this touring version of “My Fair Lady” contained a wealth of detail about the production.

Each performance involves a cast of 35 actors, an orchestra of 16 musicians and 25 stage technicians. Ten 45-foot trailers are required to move the production from one venue to the next, and 73 persons are needed to strike and remount the production

There are 425 books on the set of Professor Higgins’ study.

There are 300 separate lights in the lighting rig, with a combined 250,000 watts, and the lighting equipment cost over one million dollars. There are 171 lighting cues at each performance.

Over seven miles of electronic cable are used in the show.

The production uses 88 pieces of flying scenery. The scenery flown during each performance weighs over 5,000 pounds.

The floral arch set, in itself, requires eighteen different stage motors to strike or mount. The study set, in itself, requires twelve members of the stage crew, three fly operators and one automation operator to strike or mount.

The “marbles” used when Eliza learns to speak properly are actually chewable mints.

Cast members consume, onstage, eight bread rolls, 24 chocolates, 32 mints, four blocks of cheese, two ginger cakes, four jam tarts and four liters of Coca-Cola (which substitutes for brandy) at each performance.

There are 162 individual stage costumes in the production. Eliza’s ballroom dress has 5897 beads, each of which is hand-sewn. There are 195 costume changes at each performance. The largest hat in the show, worn during the Ascot scene, is one yard wide.

After each performance, there are six commercial loads of laundry to be washed, including 24 shirts that must be starched and ironed. Over five pounds of laundry detergent are consumed each day.

A total of 46 wigs are used in the production. Twenty are compiled from human hair, while twenty-six are made from synthetic materials. Eight fake mustaches and one fake beard are used in the production. The company goes through ten cans of hairspray each week—and 800 wipes to remove stage makeup.

This mind-numbing proliferation of detail in the program booklet was, alas, twice as interesting as the show itself. Whoever decided that this “My Fair Lady” needed to be inflicted on American audiences? It was God-awful.

The production was poorly-designed and looked cheap, no matter how many thousands of personnel were involved in its planning, construction and maintenance. The cast members appeared to be less interested in the proceedings than the audience, which was a genuine accomplishment of sorts, since the audience appeared to be bored out of its mind. I doubt I have ever seen a stage presentation of anything so ossified and stale, except perhaps my readiest frame of reference, that “Mousetrap” performance back in 2002.

Josh and my parents hated this “My Fair Lady” as much as I did. In fact, we discussed leaving at the intermission. We would have done so, except we wanted to hang around to see if the actor portraying Professor Higgins died onstage during the second act. He was three decades too old for the part, and surely he is prone to go soon.

This morning Josh and I had my parents over for breakfast before church. We gave my Dad a big breakfast because we knew we would have no time for lunch.

After church, we headed straight downtown again for a 1:00 p.m. matinee at the Guthrie Theater. We attended a performance of “Third”, Wendy Wasserstein’s final play.

The play was weak. Wasserstein mined the same thin vein, the world of the New York pseudo-intellectual, over and over, and Wasserstein was never a particularly talented writer to begin with. Her saving grace as a playwright was that, in addition to knowing her core constituency and taking it seriously, she also made relentless fun of that same group. The tension between admiring and deploring this jaded set is the only thing that makes a Wasserstein play watchable.

After the matinee, we returned to my parents’ house and helped my mother prepare an early dinner. We had whitefish, accompanied by a garden salad, plain pasta and steamed mixed vegetables. The dog was given his Sunday-night chicken. For dessert, we had raspberries and ice cream.

This will be a busy week at work again. The only item on our schedule is at week’s end, when we will go hear Alfred Brendel in his final Twin Cities appearance. Brendel is scheduled to play Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. Whether the performance be good, bad or indifferent, at least Josh will be able to say that he heard Brendel.


  1. Why does Eliza's "I Could Have Danced All Night" keep ringing in my head today?

    I'm glad your back from Texas, Andrew.

    Thank you for your response to my e-mail.

    Take it easy at work.


  2. J.R.:

    If that touring production of "My Fair Lady" travels to Chicago, I would definitely skip it.

    I hope your week is off to a good start--and I hope it stays that way.


  3. I will skip it, Andrew.

    I am forever spoiled by the Hepburn movie version.

    I hope your week is fabulous.

    I do hope everything stays in their place, at least for now...