BWW Review: MY FAIR LADY at Lyric Stage: A Grande Dame

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My Fair Lady

Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe, Adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play and Gabriel Pascal's motion picture Pygmalion; Director of the original production of My Fair Lady, Moss Hart; Directed by Scott Edmiston; Music Director, Catherine Stornetta; Choreographer, David Connolly; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Samuel Hanson; Dialect Coach, Amelia Broome; Production Stage Manager, Rafi Levavy; Assistant Stage Manager, Nerys Powell

CAST (in alphabetical order): Remo Airaldi, Elise Arsenault, Tony Castellanos, Christopher Chew, Catherine Lee Christie, Jennifer Ellis, Beth Gotha, Meghan LaFlam, Carla Martinez, Kathryn McKellar, Cheryl McMahon, Davron S. Monroe, Andy Papas, Aaron Michael Ray, Jared Troilo, J.T. Turner

Performances through October 11 at Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com

My Fair Lady is one of the grande dames of musical theater and the Lyric Stage Company is giving her the royal treatment she deserves under the erudite direction of Scott Edmiston, with musical direction by Catherine Stornetta. In the transformative role of Eliza Doolittle, much-in-demand Jennifer Ellis takes her considerable skills to a new level with a performance that is at once humorous, heartbreaking, and triumphant. If you approach the show with intentions of comparing it to the original stage or screen versions, may I suggest that you leave your expectations at the door. Edmiston's vision and framework, tailored to suit the particulars of the Lyric's space, sharpen the focus on the characters and the relationships, while Ellis' singular voice weaves new magic from the beautiful Lerner and Loewe score.

Based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady musically tells the story of a lower class London flower-seller taken in as an experiment by an egotistical speech teacher who promises to rid her of her Cockney accent and turn her into a lady. The songs are interwoven to advance the plot and develop the characters, and each of Frederick Loewe's tunes is its own special creation that matches the personality who sings it. Rollicking music hall ditties for Alfred P. Doolittle, staid patter numbers for the uptight Henry Higgins, and feisty challenges raised by Eliza are a few examples, but the composer also penned two lovely ballads that have stood the test of time. Stornetta achieves astonishing breadth of sound from her keyboard, augmented by the sweet sounds of strings (Emily Dahl, violin; Javier Caballero, cello) to complement the lovely voices.

There are many fresh touches in Edmiston's production that make it look and feel different, starting with Janie E. Howland's scenic design. Employing an abstract concept, the different locations are suggested more than defined, with a few set pieces to differentiate Covent Garden, Professor Higgins' home, Mrs. Higgins' home, and various street scenes. Lighting designer Karen Perlow uses spotlights to focus attention during some of the introspective songs and makes sure that every nook and cranny of the stage has enough light. Samuel Hanson is the sound designer and realistically recreates the voice recordings that Higgins makes of Eliza. Speaking of voices, Amelia Broome's work as dialect coach deserves praise as everyone goes back and forth from Cockney to proper English seamlessly.

The director has lined up a trove of Actors' Equity members from the top-billed to the ensemble, resulting in quality portrayals across the board. IRNE Award-winner and Lyric Stage stalwart Christopher Chew has the appropriate bearing as arrogant elocution professor Higgins. He brings his great musicality to the role, eschewing the usual talk-singing associated with it, and puts his own stamp on Higgins' priggish personality. Chew is at his best when representing Higgins' superciliousness and cluelessness as to the feelings of others, when he's gleefully celebrating his moments of success, and at the times he vacillates between facing his affection for Eliza and pretending he doesn't need her or anyone. There are a few occasions when his acting choices make Higgins seem infantile, rather than spoiled, or his bluster gets out of hand, but overall Chew is commanding and does a good job of filling the professor's tweeds.

The chemistry between the leads is strong, and you just might feel the heat generated by the sparks that fly between Ellis and Chew. He also has a genuine camaraderie with the buoyant Remo Airaldi (Colonel Pickering), who offers his velvet glove to soothe the put-upon Eliza when Higgins is wielding his iron fist. Cheryl McMahon is solid as Mrs. Pearce, another sympathetic member of the household who tries to run interference for Eliza when the professor runs amok. Even Higgins' own mother (Beth Gotha, very good) develops a fondness for the student and takes her side against her ill-mannered son.

This trio of surrogates is more supportive than Eliza's father, the ne'er-do-well tippler Alfred P. Doolittle, delightfully brought to life by J.T. Turner. When he finds out that Higgins is housing his daughter, he visits the professor with his hand out, hoping to finagle a few pounds from Eliza's good fortune. It's a great scene between Turner and Chew as Doolittle discovers that he's way out of his league debating the linguist, but, delighted by his chutzpah, Higgins pays him off anyway. As much as anyone in the 16-member cast, Turner appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself when he does his little song-and-dance routines, flirts with the women in the chorus, and rolls his hat up his arm onto his head like an old vaudevillian.

As the smitten Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Jared Troilo is sweet and has the vocal chops to bring out the beauty and longing of "On the Street Where You Live." While Freddy knows but doesn't care that Eliza is a flower girl, Higgins' former student Zoltan Karpathy (a fabulous Tony Castellanos) tries to prove that she's a fraud, but is so taken with her that he declares her to be a Hungarian princess. The ensemble scenes at the Ascot races ("Ascot Gavotte") and the party at the embassy ("Embassy Waltz") showcase David Connolly's choreography, Gail Astrid Buckley's exquisite costumes designed for the upper crust, and the supporting players (Elise Arsenault, Catherine Lee Christie, Meghan LaFlam, Carla Martinez, Kathryn McKellar, Davron S. Monroe, Andy Papas, and Aaron Michael Ray).

I've saved the best for last because Jen Ellis' performance will stay with you long after they turn out the lights on 27A Wimpole Street. She transforms from a dirty-faced, Cockney-spewing "guttersnipe" who talks tougher than she is, to a beautiful, elegant, confident lady with impeccable manners who speaks the King's English like a native. The achievement is her authenticity and credibility in both aspects of the role, but the crowning glory is her renditions of the musical numbers. Ellis may transform herself, but she also transports the audience from the moment she opens her mouth to sing. It doesn't matter who sang these songs before; in the context of this very special production, Ellis makes them her own. A grande dame indeed.

Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Jared Troilo, Jennifer Ellis, and the cast of My Fair Lady)



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From This Author Nancy Grossman