At times, it was if the stage almost shimmered. The audience applauded the set (well, the costumes really) twice and the singing and dancing were spectacular. Despite a three-hour length, a few draggy parts in Act II while plot points are getting sorted out, and one of the most familiar stories in the world, we loved it all. Director Michael Hamilton’s My Fair Lady is the most beautiful show I’ve seen this year, and it is a lot more than just a pretty face.
But first, those hats! Costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis and her staff have done such amazing work on them (and the dresses, as well) that they were the subject of an entire article by Judith Newmark in the Post-Dispatch. When the swells posed at the top of the show and at Ascot, they looked like tableaux inspired by Erté. James Wolk’s set moves seamlessly through several locations, including Henry Higgins’ stunning library, and is also lovely to look at. We can’t hear any of the wheels turning for set changes except near the very end. All the technical aspects of the show are near-perfect, with a special mention for Matthew McCarthy’s lighting design and Dana Lewis’s choreography.
Since there is no live orchestra, I’m never sure what to say about the recorded music, here staged by Hamilton. Musical direction is by Lisa Campbell Albert, and designed by Stuart M. Elmore, and it sounds good behind this talented vocal ensemble. I think Alan J. Lerner (who also adapted George Bernard Shaw’s classic Pygmalion for the musical stage, as well as wrote the lyrics) and Frederick Loewe, an old school composer whose music is eminently hummable, would approve. The score is filled with great music, both songs that advance the story (“Just You Wait,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I’m An Ordinary Man,” “Without You,” and more) and those that have become popular standards including “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “With A Little Bit of Luck,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” the last of which is done in the talk-sing style of the greatest Higgins of them all, Rex Harrison.
First produced on Broadway in 1956 to a grand reception, as Hamilton notes, “few [productions received] the acclaim of My Fair Lady. He also calls our attention to the “literate” libretto and lyrics, and I agree that this aspect adds interest and much humor to the show which has quite a simple plot. Henry Higgins (Christopher Guilmet), a proud and priggish professor (even his own mother played by Zoe Vonder Haar doesn’t like him) makes a bet with a new friend, Col. Pickering (John Flack, who also specializes in the study of phonetics and dialects as Higgins does) that he can transform a flower seller he encounters on the street in Covent Garden into a genuine “lady” in only six months. Or three, if he’s lucky.
Apparently Higgins was speaking hypothetically, but Eliza (Pamela Brumley) overhears his address, and in support of her dream to own her own shop, she appears at Higgins’ house the following morning seeking diction lessons and is prepared to pay for them. Partway through the process, she encounters young Freddie Eynsford-Hill (Brandon Davidson) who falls for her instantly. He’s a courtly lover because he doesn’t really want to spend time with her as much as hang around outside her house and write her several letters each day. Now that I think about it, Freddie could be perceived as a well-dressed stalker. She has a couple of interactions with her father, the charming rascal Alfred P. Doolittle (Edward Juvier, the best Doolittle I’ve seen). Of course, she falls in love with Teacher, so how will it all end?
Well, you know how the story comes out if you’ve ever seen this show or the subsequent film, and really, who hasn’t? I want to mention a few highlights, and then list most of the huge cast at the end of this review. It isn’t that they aren’t all great; they are, but there are so many of them. Doolittle’s sidekicks Harry (Patrick David) and Jamie (Sean Quinn), deserve singling out because they bookend Doolittle perfectly and their presence actually enhances an already great performance. Kari Ely is a stoic Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, and she and Higgins have a bit of business where he puts his hat on her head. She is so ramrod straight and dignified that this touch is hilarious. Watch for these little moments throughout, especially from the playful Juvier.
Brumley’s voice would make angels weep. Flack can do anything, I’m convinced, as can Vonder Haar. This performance couldn’t be more different from the one she offered in Always….Patsy Cline that opened Stages 2013 season, and the last time I saw Flack he was wearing a nun’s habit as the title character in The Divine Sister. Christopher Guilmet is a somewhat younger Higgins than we’re accustomed to seeing, maybe because Harrison last toured with the part when he was past 60. But actually that makes him seem a more credible, if still clueless, romantic prospect for young Eliza.
Something else rather wonderful happened with this particular production. Hamilton’s direction clearly emphasizes that Eliza is not a victim. While the number “You Did It” by the ensemble gives all the credit for her transformation to Higgins, marginalizing her, even physically moving her out of the midst of the action, we can feel her frustration. What goes before and comes after the post-Embassy Ball shenanigans solidifies the notion that this relationship is entered into by both parties on equal terms. She seeks him out, learns from him, wants to be with him, makes him want her, and gets him in the end. Now whether that is good luck or bad is hidden behind the final curtain. Shaw put her with Freddy.
You should see this absolutely fabulous My Fair Lady if you have the chance. I don’t see how it could have been done any better, and overall, it is just a “loverly” production of an American musical theatre treasure.
The rest of the cast (in alphabetical order): Alan Ball, Stephen Barnowski, Lori Barrett-Pagano, Craig Blake, Michele Burdette Elmore, Lois Enders, Jonathan Kwock, Larry Mabrey, Lindsey McKee, Ellen Isom, Steve Isom, Pamela Reckamp, Lauren Roesner, and Jeffrey Scott Stevens. Most play multiple roles.
My Fair Lady runs through Oct. 13 at Stages. You may visit the Stages Website.
By ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT
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