Lyric Stage's "My Fair Lady": Again, Come on, Dover, Move Your Bloomin'...

Remo Airaldi, Jennifer Ellis & Christopher Chew in "My Fair Lady"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Can it truly be sixty years ago that “My Fair Lady” premiered? The hugely successful and universally praised Broadway musical, with Lyrics and Book by Alan Jay Lerner (based on George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play “Pygmalion”) and Music by Frederick Loewe, won six Tonys including Best Musical. Shaw's play had been filmed in 1938 (winning him an Oscar for adapted screenplay). The musical was subsequently adapted for the screen in 1964, winning Oscars for Best Film, Director and Actor as well as five other Academy Awards (infamously not including the miscast, clearly dubbed and unnominated Audrey Hepburn). While Shaw's concerns were about the inequitable distribution of wealth, the unjust English class system, and the submission of women (a man surely ahead of his time), the musical was much more of a love story. Where Shaw was interested in social reform and saw himself as more of a prophet than a playwright (despite penning over sixty plays in his career), the musical version was more about suppressed romance. It was blessed with an incredibly lovely score that led to the original cast album's two-year chart-topping status and produced such popular hits as “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, and “On the Street Where You Live”. (The latter was conceived as a throwaway song included in order to make a major set change in the days before today's complex technical expertise). The choice of this work as Lyric Stage Company's first production of the season was a risky one, considering how well received the original stage musical, film adaptation and several revivals were. The question was whether this revival of the beloved musical would measure up to its storied past. The answer is decidedly in the affirmative. Now, as was true six decades ago, we remain in awe of the show that is at its center the story of the metanoia of a Covent Garden flower girl into a one very fair lady. Or is it?

Maybe not, as this version posits. Is the real change that of a commoner into the realm of social royalty, or is it actually the story of the evolution of her supposed mentor? On the surface, it's the tale of the cockney Eliza Doolittle (Jennifer Ellis) and her transformation into a well-spoken and well-behaved upper class woman. This production demonstrates how the baseline of the musical is the development from a cold and haughty 'Enry 'Iggins (Christopher Chew) into a more feeling, vulnerable and approachable flesh-and-blood character. (As Oscar Hammerstein put it in “The King and I”, “by your pupils you'll be taught”). So it really shouldn't surprise us that it's not the flower girl who grows on us, but her Svengali of a teacher. In the very capable hands of a brilliant performer like Ellis, this seems exactly as it should be. Chew's Henry Higgins is more complex, more wounded, and more human than typically portrayed; most importantly, he can really sing and thus soar, as opposed to the expected singspiel approach typically given the role. Ellis also manages to seem truly “so deliciously low, so horribly dirty” and mere “baggage” at the start, with subtle gestures and details (for example, her feet so firmly unladylike). Her goal, a simple one, is to rise to the exalted level of a shop girl. To that end, Higgins' goal is to improve her diction and her manners. Yet, as Higgins' associate Colonel Pickering (Remo Airaldi) understands long before he does, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. Her ne'er-do-well father, Alfred P. Doolittle (J.T. Turner) gets it right when he proclaims that too much money brings with it too much responsibility. Her conquest at Ascot, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jared Trollo), is taken with her unabashed naturalness, as are Henry's housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Cheryl McMahon) and his mother, Mrs. Higgins (Beth Gotha), and even the phonetics guru Zoltan Karpathy (Tony Castellanos) is in her thrall.

Crucial to the success of this production was the casting of that blossoming flower girl.  Ellis, although already acclaimed for her local performances in such works as “Far from Heaven”, “City of Angels” and “Urinetown”, is a revelation here. She's a smoldering powerhouse, a very uncommonly commoner indeed, and you can't take your eyes off her, unless it's to take in the complexity of Chew's rendition of the conflicted professor, or the hilarious antics of Turner's reprobate of an absentee father, or the amiable pomposity of Airaldi's Pickering. There are so many instances of cleverly subversive acting (with the glaring exception of Castellanos' Karpathy, seemingly directed to mug unashamedly), one doesn't know where to start or stop in praise for Director Scott Edmiston and Choreographer David Connolly, skillfully handling a wonderful chorus of ten. (Such touches as Eliza's almost-but-not-quite hugging of Higgins, or Pickering's purposeful enunciation of “pline cake”, stand out). The other technical credits, all of them stellar, include the smashing phonetic Set Design (and no, that's not a typo) by Janie E. Howland, the cleverly down-sized Music Direction by Catherine Stornetta, the splendid Costume Design by Gail Asrid Buckley, the effective Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and fine Sound Design by Samuel Hanson. Attention should also be paid to the ever impressive Dialect Coaching by Amelia Broome (a renowned actress in her own right).

One might envy the newcomer to this piece of musical royalty; familiarity with the story and score (even to the anticipatory song cues) can impact one's full enjoyment of the play. But even if it's a well-remembered treasure, it's still a treasure today as much as it was in its first incarnation. In short, while we've often walked down this street before, the pavement won't stay beneath your feet. Don't miss this one, but get tickets while you still can. So it's time you moved your bloomin'.....well, you know.

No comments:

Post a Comment