My Fair Lady, now at Olney Theatre Center, is yet another classic brought to life by this versatile theatre company. As reimagined by director Alan Souza, the timeline has been moved a few years ahead, from the turn of the century to the beginning of the 1920s- all the more to make this tale of man-versus-woman into a take on woman-versus-society. It’s a thoughtful spin on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Shaw dealt with science (the man) versus emotions (the woman); by moving it to the 1920’s, Souza turns a more intimate love story into a richer yarn of society itself changing.
It’s helped along enormously by the fine cast: as Eliza Doolittle, Brittany Campbell has a lovely, clear voice, and her rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” couldn’t be more loverly. Professor Higgins (Danny Bernardy) isn’t a middle-aged man, but someone closer in age to Eliza. This levels the playing field and makes for more sparks between them – and the two actors provide plenty of sparks. As Higgins, Bernardy is not only stiff-upper-lipped enough to convince us he’s actually British, but also well able to show us he’s actually annoyed to find himself falling in love. And his agility- who knew Higgins could leap onto a three-foot tall desk?
The comic timing in this cast is one of its strongest assets: as Colonel Pickering, Todd Scofield is not only the ‘heart’ behind Higgins, but also the source of much of the show’s humor. Just watching his bemused face as he slowly comes to a conclusion miles behind everyone else is a delight. Some of the minor characters are the most fun to watch: Valerie Leonard, in the dual role of Professor Higgins’ mother, Mrs. Higgins, and Professor Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs Pierce, managed to make us laugh with just a lift of her chin.
As Alfred P. Doolittle, Chris Genebach is simply sublime- you know he’s a drunk and a charlatan, but he has a thief’s honor- when Higgens offers him ten pounds, he demurs, saying five is enough to have a spree on, but no, ten would make him a changed man- and Genebach makes us see- and agree with- the twisted logic in that. And “Get Me To The Church On Time”, surely the most toe-tapping Broadway number ever penned, seems to have been written for Genebach- such gleeful abandon as he gives himself over to the unthinkable, marrying his common-law wife! It’s a treat and a half, make no mistake.
Another treat is the intricate choreography by Grady McLeod Bowman. Olney has a small stage by Broadway standards, and of necessity a smaller ensemble. But Bowman uses every level, every stair, and every prop to full advantage- using a ladder à la Marx Brothers, there’s a wonderful and unexpected bit with Doolittle borne aloft by it. The ensemble is nimble and talented: that’s no small feat when choreography also involves gymnastics.
Costumes (Pei Lee), though, were oddly uneven: for example, while the Ascot costumes were a bright and inventive homage to Erte, and Mrs Higgins’ Ascot costume in particular a dazzle to the eye, the pieces chosen for main character Eliza seemed to be from another period entirely. As a flower seller, Lee chose a pair of pants with a gauzy and ghostly net skirt, making her look more like Peter Pan than any 1920s flower girl. And Eliza’s last costume, of a tight-fitting pair of pants and a belted sweater, no doubt intended to reference womens’ suffrage, instead reminded one more of Mary Tyler Moore in the 1970s. It’s a puzzlement, for on the whole, the costumes were otherwise superb, and in period for the Twenties era.
My Fair Lady
closes August 6, 2017
Details and tickets
James Fouchard’s set design was likewise uneven: while Professor Higgens’ library was a wonderful pastiche of huge shelves crammed with wax recorders, phonic letters, and Victorian gramophones, some of the set pieces, like the garden set of gigantic pink cabbage roses on an enormous trellis, seem to have been lifted off a Mardi Gras float. It was impossible not to be distracted, wondering just why those roses were made six feet in diameter. But the basic set, designed to look much like a boxing ring in anticipation of the main characters’ sparring matches, is clever and versatile. Two hexagonal platforms on rails become a street scene, ballroom seating, boxes at Ascot. And the addition of steps so that characters can descend into the orchestra pit gives the small theatre an added dimension, and makes for a nice crashing noise when Doolittle falls down them.
The music of Lerner and Lowe is legendary for a reason: it’s good, and continues to be good 60 years after this show first appeared on Broadway. To see it performed by such a cast, with a lovely live orchestra, is, let me say it again, a treat.
I’ve left the best for last, and really a fine reason all by itself to see this show: “On The Street Where You Live”, as sung by Benjamin Lurye as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, is absolutely perfect. I mean it. Such a strong stage presence, and such a command of a beautifully written song, is something not to miss.
Go ahead. Treat yourself.
My Fair Lady . Book/Lyrics: Alan J Lerner . Music: Frederick Lowe . Director: Alan Souza . Cast: Eliza Doolittle, Brittany Campbell; Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Benjamin Lurye; Mrs. Eynsford-Hill; Ashleigh King; Colonel Pickering, Todd Scofield; Professor Henry Higgins, Danny Bernardy; George, The Bartender, Jimmy Mavrikes; Jamie, Christopher Mueller; Harry, Warren Freeman; Mrs. Hopkins, Alex Kidder; Mrs. Pearce, Valerie Leonard; Butler, Warren Freeman; Alfred P. Doolittle, Chris Genebach; Charles, The Chauffeur, Christopher Mueller; Mrs. Higgins, Valerie Leonard; Lord Boxington, Jimmy Mavrikes; Lady Boxington, Alex Kidder; Professor Zoltan Karpathy, Christopher Mueller; Mrs. Higgins’ Maid, Christina Kidd; Ensemble, Ian Anthony Coleman, Warren Freeman, Christina Kidd, Alex Kidder, Ashleigh King, Julia Klavans, Jimmy Mavrikes, Christopher Mueller . Costumes: Pei Lee . Set Design: James Fouchard . Lighting: Max Doolittle . Music Director: Christopher Yousta . Sound Designer: Matt Rowe . Choreography: Grady McLeod Bowman . Dialect coach: Zachary Campion . Stage Manager: Trevor A Riley . Produced by Olney Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.