'Enry 'Iggins sings! Neville has broken the talking tradition

October 27, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

The irony of it is oh so loverly.

Here is John Neville, cast as Henry Higgins, who struggles to teach Eliza Doolittle to speak proper English in "My Fair Lady."

On the one hand, Mr. Neville is one of the most respected classically trained actors on the English-speaking stage. On the other, as he admits, "I grew up with the accent Eliza has."

In fact, the British-born Mr. Neville says it's easy for him to slip back into Eliza's cockney. Until his father's recent death, he acknowledges, "Whenever I visited him, I'd find after a week or so I started to revert."

Theatergoers can rest assured there won't be any such slip-ups when the 35th anniversary production of the classic Lerner and Loewe musical arrives at the Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday.

But there is an aspect of Mr. Neville's performance that may take audiences by surprise: He sings. Although best known in this country for the title role in the Terry Gilliam film "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," or as the butler in the NBC series, "Grand," he has also appeared in a number of musicals.

In one, a British show called "Boots with Strawberry Jam," he played George Bernard Shaw, author of "Pygmalion," the source for "My Fair Lady." Other musical credits include the original London production of "Irma La Douce," a musical version of "The Three Musketeers," which he co-adapted, and the aborted 1971 production of "Lolita, My Love." He has even portrayed Henry Higgins before, in 1988 at the Canadian Stratford Festival, where he served as artistic director for four seasons.

The point is, not only can Mr. Neville sing, he may be the singingest Higgins yet.

This might not sound unusual for the lead in a musical. But keep in mind that the late Rex Harrison -- who created the role and is most closely identified with it -- had such a limited vocal range that he seriously considered turning down the part.

What he did instead was develop a primarily spoken style of delivery that became the trademark of the role. "For many years afterward, other Higginses who tried to sing were criticized for it," explains Crandall Diehl, who directed and choreographed the current production, which also stars Christine Andreas and Clive Revill.

"John is the first Higgins I've worked with -- and I've worked a great many of them -- who manages to sing a good deal more . . . of the score than one is accustomed to hearing and makes it very, very acceptable. It's an added plus," says Mr. Diehl, who has been associated with nearly two dozen productions of "My ))

Fair Lady," including the original.

Comparisions inevitable

Mr. Neville recognizes that comparisons to Harrison are inevitable, and, far from shying away from them, meets them head-on, expressing great admiration for his predecessor's performance, which he saw five times. "I thought he was definitive in the role," he says over the phone from his home in Stratford, Ontario. "I didn't ever think I could be equal, but one has to say that was 35 years ago. That was then and this is now and this is me."

Nor is singing the only difference in his portrayal. According to Mr. Diehl, "John brings a less personalized and wider range of his theatrical techniques to bear on the part."

At the same time, the director acknowledges that during the first days of rehearsal he felt "a little bit cautious" about working with Mr. Neville. Aware that the actor had directed himself in the role at Stratford, he realized "there was a possibility that he would be resistant to anything I wanted from him." Instead, he found him "gentle as a lamb to work with. It's a delight when you come across an actor of his stature who's willing to put himself entirely in the director's hands and try anything."

Trying anything appears to be one of the 66-year-old actor's chief character traits. He recalls the time director Terry Gilliam flew to Canada to interest him in playing Baron Munchausen in his 1989 motion picture. Mr. Neville read the script and told the director, "I think it's extraordinary, but I don't know how you're going to do it." The director admitted he didn't either.

Nonetheless, Mr. Neville accepted the part and soon found himself caught up in six months of "very, very hard work" portraying a legendary 18th century German cavalry officer whose journeys range from the moon to the belly of a sea monster.

The filming, which took place in Italy and Spain, left Mr. Neville tired and dispirited. "But when I finally saw it," he says, "I was absolutely captivated by it -- so much so, I forgot it was me. That's a very great tribute."

Unfortunately, almost as soon as it was released, "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" virtually disappeared -- a $40 million debacle for Columbia Pictures, which, according to Mr. Neville, failed to promote the picture properly because of a change in studio leadership.

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