BWW Reviews: Ocean State Theatre Delights with Sparkling MY FAIR LADY
Ocean State Theatre Company has offered consistent, high-quality musical theater productions for the better part of a decade. The company earned acclaim during several seasons at Matunuck's Theatre-by-the-Sea, then moved to its own year-round performance space in Warwick. OSTC opened the 2014-15 season this weekend-its third year of operations at the Warwick venue-with a staging of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, and this outstanding production is one of the company's finest to date.
My Fair Lady, a beloved musical theater classic, is a type of Cinderella story. Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (played by Jessica Wagner) has a chance encounter with Professor Henry Higgins (Richard Costa), an expert in the field of phonetics. The self-important Higgins plays unlikely "fairy godmother" to Eliza after betting his colleague, Colonel Pickering (Todd Berkich), that he can teach Eliza to speak without the jarring accent that betrays her lowly upbringing and social status. Eliza proves a determined, if trying, student, and during her transformation from "squashed cabbage leaf" to princess, an unexpected companionship develops between the oddly-matched master and pupil.
Eliza Doolittle is a part that demands much from a performer both as an actor and a singer, and Wagner meets and exceeds expectations in the role. Wagner makes Eliza's most comedic scenes feel natural and artless, and all the more entertaining for this innocence. The thick and oftentimes humorous accent that mars Eliza's speech could make it easy for a performer to slip into caricature, but Wagner avoids hyperbole and, from the very first, presents Eliza as smart, feeling, and alive. Wagner's Eliza clearly goes on a journey, learning and growing through each scene of the production; by the time the curtain falls, she's still recognizably Eliza, but with an added strength and maturity that marks the character's experiences. Wagner is a standout vocalist as well, masterfully performing Eliza's signature numbers "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Wouldn't It be Loverly?" The beauty and strength of Wagner's instrument is clear, even when masked under Eliza's Cockney intonation.
Costa likewise shines as the curmudgeonly Professor Higgins. The self-congratulatory Higgins can come across as somewhat of a bully, prickly and abrasive; however, Costa plays Higgins with a clinical air, detached and aloof from the rest of humanity. This portrayal makes Higgins' character arc much more poignant, especially in scenes where Eliza challenges and finally breaks through his well-practiced composure and calm demeanor. Costa allows Higgins to transform gradually, layer-by-layer, as the story progresses. That Higgins comes to care for Eliza is understood in the script, and most pointedly in the song "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," but Costa's approach underscores Higgins' state of mind through non-verbal cues, such as subtle changes in his posture and restless movements of his hands. Costa is also fantastic in comedic scenes, playing straight man to each punchline with perfect aplomb.
The rest of OSTC's cast is just as strong as the production's leading duo. From supporting roles to ensemble players, this entire company is remarkable from curtain to curtain. Special standouts include the engaging Peter Tedeschi as Eliza's charismatically-opportunistic father, Alfred P. Doolittle; Berkich as the affable and gentlemanly Colonel Pickering; Valerie Remillard Myette as Higgins' longsuffering housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce; Melanie Souza as Higgins' dignified yet warmhearted mother; and Roger Reed as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza's adorably-dim, would-be suitor. Reed delivers a winning rendition of "On the Street Where You Live" with a solid vocal performance and lots of charm. The cast members also have ample opportunity to show off their graceful steps in several spirited dance routines choreographed by OSTC artistic director, Amiee Turner.
This production is further enhanced with clever scenic design by Clifton Chadick and superb costuming by Brian Horton. Chadick enhances painted flats with realistic lighting features to depict the exterior of Higgins' bachelor flat, while careful attention to detail makes Higgins' study feel perfectly suited to its occupant. Other minimally-rendered set pieces are judiciously paired with black space to evoke the Ascot racetrack, Alfred Doolittle's favorite seedy barroom, the Transylvanian Embassy, and Mrs. Higgins' manicured gardens. Horton's costumes run the gamut from the worn and tattered garb of the denizens of Tottenham Court Road to the dazzlingly-arrayed ladies and gentlemen in the Embassy Ballroom. Especially memorable are the black-and-white togs donned by the elite set at Ascot. These impeccably-crafted costumes are tailored to perfection, each one more sumptuous than the next.
OSTC's My Fair Lady is thoroughly polished, professional through and through, and a not-to-be-missed start to the company's 2014-15 season.
Performances of My Fair Lady run through October 19, 2014 at the Ocean State Theatre Company. Tickets range in price from $39-54 and can be purchased online at OceanStateTheatre.org, by phone (401) 921-6800, or at the OSTC box office, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Rush tickets are available. Call (401) 921-1777 x112 for information on group discounts.
Pictured: Richard Costa and Jessica Wagner
Photo by Mark Turek