THEATER : Just You Wait, Enry Iggins : Richard Chamberlain to Offer His Interpretation of the Professor

Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

Worried that Richard Chamberlain may not be up to "My Fair Lady"? Let it be remembered that he once enjoyed a brief but memorable singing career. Back when he was Dr. Kildare on TV (will anyone ever let him forget?), he cut an album in that dreamy style of his. It even spawned a hit single of sorts, "Three Stars Will Shine Tonight."

Now "fiftysomething" as he puts it (he's actually 58), he laughed wryly when the record was brought up during a recent interview. It just won't go away.

Chamberlain--Prof. Henry Higgins in the production of "My Fair Lady" that continues through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa--said he learned recently that "Richard Chamberlain Sings" was just released on CD in Germany, one of those countries that can't seem to get enough American pop nostalgia.

"Someone sent me a copy, but I haven't been up to putting it in the player yet," he said with a sigh. "I don't think I'd be embarrassed, but that was a while back.

"What I recall is that they (such songs as 'Hi-Lilli, Hi-Lo' and 'I Dream of You') were great fun to do. Old-fashioned standards done in a dated style . . . really, pretty forgettable, I imagine."

That vocal venture was all part of MGM's plan for Chamberlain back in the early '60s. Besides picking him to play the idealistic, gentle Kildare, the studio also shuttled the Beverly Hills High School graduate into a few movies. The TV show ran from 1961 to '66, and Chamberlain became something of a heartthrob for sensitive girls and their sensitive moms.

He parlayed his popularity into a career as "king of the miniseries." There was "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds," both with him at the center of all the sweeping action. He had a flop series in 1989 called "Island Son," but nobody much remembers that.

Before, between and after those projects, Chamberlain found a haven on the stage, working in several productions of Shakespeare in America and in England and becoming known for an abiding interest in the classics. Musical theater, however, hasn't been high on his resume. He did play opposite Mary Tyler Moore in a version of Truman Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in 1966, but it was a disaster, closing after about six weeks.

"Let me tell you," Chamberlain said, wincing. "It was the biggest flop on Broadway."

So why "My Fair Lady"? Why not "Pygmalion," the serious play (by George Bernard Shaw) on which the Lerner and Loewe musical is based? Chamberlain--an admirer of Shaw--answered that he's never been asked to tackle "Pygmalion," so he grabbed this chance to do something close to it.

Besides, he added, "I like what T. S. Eliot said after seeing 'My Fair Lady'--that 'Pygmalion' was greatly improved by the music.

"I thought about doing this for a while, and then it came to me that gosh, here I have the chance to do some brilliant material for a year or some mediocre stuff on TV. I chose to do the brilliant stuff."

Of course, the shadow of Rex Harrison has hung over almost every performance (and review). But Chamberlain said he expected that and takes it in stride. Preparing for the role, he said, he purposely avoided both the recording of the Broadway show and the movie (from 1964, which also featured Harrison). He thought they "might be too dangerous, too persuasive.

"I think Rex Harrison is the most brilliant high comedian of his generation and (Higgins) is obviously a role he created," he explained. "My approach is just to throw myself into it as if it were a new show. I feel his presence to a small extent, but not overly so."

He noted that there's room for interpreting Higgins, whom he considers to be one of Shaw's more intriguing characters. On the surface, the professor may seem like just another self-absorbed Edwardian tyrant who bullies flower girl Eliza Doolittle into good manners and high society, but Chamberlain thinks that's a short-sighted view.

"This is a complicated guy who has complicated relationships, with his mother and other people. Men are generally frightened of women, sexually and domestically, because men are frightened of their feelings toward them. They (feel weak) because of those feelings.

"Higgins is like that, and he gets upset at things he can't control (like Eliza, and his love for her). He's trapped himself in this magnificent masculine bastion of science and language and it's very comforting, but he's losing the struggle to deny his heart."

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