Chamberlain ventures into musical comedy

April 15, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

He has been a noble, young doctor at Blair General, a troubled priest in Australia and a brave adventurer in old Japan. But a fussy, confirmed old English bachelor who shouts at women -- and sings and dances?

Dr. Kildare, Father Ralph from "The Thorn Birds" and Blackthorne the Shogun will all be singing "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

"It's my favorite song," said Richard Chamberlain. "I also do the waltz."

That's right, the unfailingly charming and durably handsome actor, often called the king of the miniseries, is stepping out on the musical comedy stage for the first time in 27 years to play the superstar role of Professor Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady."

"I guess maybe it's not the Richard Chamberlain role they seem to expect. But, I am having a lot of fun." And Mr. Chamberlain surely sounded that way in an interview recently during a break ** at his show's west-side New York rehearsal hall.

Mr. Chamberlain, in fact, sounded as boyish and lively as young Jim Kildare did when he saved lives and set female hearts aflutter on NBC every week from 1961 to 1966. As a bonus to

fans who might wonder if the international star became jaded after so many hits, an immensely cordial Mr. Chamberlain is as polite in person as if he were still talking to Raymond Massey as Dr. Gillespie.

"Well, I wasn't a surprise to the producers," he said. "They said, 'They tell me you can sing?' "

"Hah! Sure I can sing. I have some musical training. Remember, I was in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' one of the greatest flops ever to hit New York," and Mr. Chamberlain gave a great laugh about the classic 1966 catastrophe that producer David Merrick closed on the fourth night of previews before it could open on Broadway.

L "So I showed them. Then they said, "My God, he can dance!' "

Whatever happens, Mr. Chamberlain said, his version of the classic Rex Harrison role of Higgins will be different. "Sure, I'll have an English accent, but I find him so funny. I always love characters who feel one thing and say another. The thing about Higgins is that he is never mean.

"He just has got no skills at intimate relations," Mr. Chamberlain said of the stuffy English speech expert who bets he can turn Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a duchess. And then falls for her.

Says critic Dan Sullivan, "I think he will surprise everyone. I have a very high estimation of Richard Chamberlain as a stage performer."

It was Mr. Sullivan who, as a young second-string New York Times drama critic, saw a preview and wrote the only review of Mr. Chamberlain's musical debut opposite Mary Tyler Moore in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." "The trouble is that he doesn't project very well in the movies, where he's cool and imperturbable and smooth. Personally he probably is that kind of guy. You give him a role that challenges him, and he really comes to life. You get all kind of edges and crags and attacks and strange things. He's a very interesting stage actor -- he did 'Cyrano' somewhere and 'Richard II' in Seattle."

Mr. Chamberlain, without hearing Mr. Sullivan's comments, said

he has found some rough edges on Henry Higgins. "Maybe he's going to be a little tougher, a little less ingratiating. Less musical-comedy charming."


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