BWW Reviews: Excellent, Elegant MY FAIR LADY Graces the Stage at Theatre by the Sea

By: Jun. 28, 2015
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My Fair Lady is one of Lerner and Loewe's most beloved theatrical creations. The show's enduring popularity is evident; playhouses around the globe mount new stage productions year after year, and the 1964 cinematic adaptation (starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn) continues to garner admiration from generations of film critics and moviegoers. My Fair Lady remains a true classic of the musical theater community.

Theatre by the Sea's current production does this rich legacy proud. Matunuck's thoroughly engaging My Fair Lady radiates life and vitality from curtain to curtain in a presentation that is absolutely excellent in every regard.

This starts with a uniformly outstanding company of actors. Charles Shaughnessy heads the cast in a starring turn as Professor Henry Higgins. Though Shaughnessy is more popularly known for his work in television (Days of Our Lives, The Nanny), he is clearly at home and entirely in his element on stage. His performance is energized and commanding, from Higgins' opening line in Covent Garden to the final strains of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

Shaughnessy first played Higgins more than a decade ago at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and since then, the prickly phonetics professor has become something of a signature role. That Shaughnessy deeply respects this part and enjoys playing Higgins is evident in his portrayal. The professor is as superior and misogynistic as ever (Shaughnessy's "I'm an Ordinary Man" is an absolute delight), but Shaughnessy tempers these characteristics by adding a dose of sarcastic humor and flashes of geniality that bring more depth and a greater emotional range to his Higgins. This smart, insightful interpretation also builds an extra layer of authenticity into the budding relationship between Higgins and Eliza. From the very start, Shaughnessy's subtle physical and vocal cues make it clear that Eliza gets under Higgins' skin in a way no other character does.

The delightful Kerry Conte more than holds her own in the challenging role of Eliza Doolittle. Conte is a charming comedienne, bringing spunk and appeal to Eliza's lessons with Higgins and to the iconic Ascot horse race scene. She manages even the most exaggerated of Eliza's Cockney phrases with aplomb, and while she wholly embraces the humor of Eliza's linguistic struggles, she does so in a manner that humanizes her character without descending into broad caricature. In addition, Conte is a brilliant vocalist, performing sparkling renditions of "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"

Conte brings other small touches to her role that further work to fully develop Eliza's character. Her hesitancy and aborted attempts at inclusion during the ebullient post-Embassy celebrations ("You Did It") speak profoundly to Eliza's insecurities and to the justified hurt she feels at her own accomplishments being slighted. Eliza's Cinderella-style transformation also means that her adopted "family" of chimney sweeps and flower sellers fails to recognize her when she returns to Covent Garden, and Conte beautifully captures Eliza's sadness and resignation in that scene.

Shaughnessy and Conte work wonderfully well together and have a lively rapport. The duo's early combativeness convincingly transforms into an unexpected friendship. The actors make the awkwardness of this unforeseen companionability a real part of their dynamic, and through it, they allow Eliza and Higgins' relationship to unfold naturally over the course of the play's timeline. Even in the eleventh hour, they are still coming to understand each other, and Conte and Shaughnessy are especially good in the second act's big confrontation scenes. Both the late-night clash after the Embassy ball and the empowering number "Without You" fairly crackle between the two of them, which is the perfect counterpoint to the quiet poignancy of Higgins and Eliza's final scene.

Bill E. Dietrich positively glows as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's ne'er-do-well father. Dietrich captures the amiable buffoonery of the role - Doolittle's first-act battle of wits with Higgins is fabulous fun - while also giving the "common dustman" the suggestion of a harder edge. Dietrich leads off two of the most memorable song-and-dance numbers of this production, the buoyant "With a Little Bit of Luck" and the outright show-stopper "Get Me to the Church on Time." These songs are animated in themselves, but Dietrich adds wonderful expression and flourishes that up the entertainment value in each of Doolittle's snappy lyrics.

The always-reliable Tom Gleadow plays the affable Colonel Pickering, and his tangential, quick-fire discourse on operatic scores is one of the highlights of the Ascot scene. Maria Day infuses Mrs. Higgins - the professor's aristocratic mother - with an enviable dry humor that earns lots of laughter. Zachary Berger manifests Freddy Eynsford-Hill's puppy-love devotion to Eliza with an adorably vacant sweetness; his well-sung rendition of "On the Street Where You Live" ideally epitomizes Freddy's love-struck infatuation.

Much applause is due to Charles Repole, the director of My Fair Lady at Theatre by the Sea. Mr. Repole's guiding vision is at the heart of TBTS's production, and his smart direction makes for tight, well-paced storytelling. Props and sets are kept deliberately spare to maximize space on Matunuck's small stage, but Michael P. Kramer's keen attention to detail in each piece - from the definition of individual books and mementoes on Higgins' shelves, to vines of ivy trailing up columns, to flower carts overflowing with vibrant blossoms - gives full realization to each scene. Kathleen Edwards' sumptuous costumes add to the richness of the visuals, including the various roughened textures used in the flower girls' tattered outfits and the decorative spangles on Eliza's dazzling gowns. The black-and-white frocks and fine suits worn by the elite at Ascot likewise make for an impressive tableau.

Michael Lichtefeld's winning choreography lends all the big dance scenes a refreshing, energetic playfulness. Lichtefeld captures the flavor of each scene in movement, from the joyous "The Rain in Spain" to the stately "Ascot Gavotte." The complex and comedic "Get Me to the Church on Time" is especially memorable. Also to be commended is sound designer Charles Coes. The fine audio work on this production is notable; all of the actors' lines and each and every lyric - down to individual syllables - are beautifully clear and distinct to the back of the house.

Theatre by the Sea's My Fair Lady is a must-see production. Not only is it a jewel of the summer season, it is easily one of the best pieces of theater in Rhode Island so far this year.

Performances of My Fair Lady run through July 18, 2015 at Theatre by the Sea. Tickets range from $45-65 and can be purchased online at www.theatrebythesea.com, by phone (401) 782-8587, or in person at the TBTS box office, 364 Cards Pond Road, Matunuck, RI.

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Photo by Steven Richard Photography



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