By Ian Rigg
Musical theater is a medium of old blood. The canon consists of classics like The Music Man, Mame, Carousel, The King & I, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!…
Once new and dazzling, these (rightly) beloved musicals are often attended by an older crowd, recalling their halcyon heyday. These productions run the risk of being stale and by-numbers if not inventive and inspired. My Fair Lady is no exception, particularly because it was never quite new.
The momentous 1957 musical, about feisty flower girl Eliza Doolittle and acerbic aristocrat Professor Henry Higgins turning one another’s lives upside down after taking a bet to teach her to speak properly and pass her off as high society, was itself an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. Pygmalion, in turn, was inspired by the Ovid myth of the same name, about a sculptor who created a woman of ivory, and having fallen in love with the likeness of his statue, yearned to give her the breath of life.
My Fair Lady is a monument of musical theater, about an effigy, Eliza. Its true test, like Eliza is put to in the play: the statue may be beautiful, but is it really brought to life? Does it really have that spark?
Light Opera Works production of My Fair Lady is impeccably carved. With luscious costumes, lustrous lighting, lavish sets, replete with 28-piece orchestra, the production value is dazzling and delightful. Scenic and technical director Adam Veness’ set is a wonder, eminently practical and yet elegant and exceptionally crafted. Professor Higgins’ office is remarkably rendered, a two-story set with all manner of furnishings, a fully stocked set of bookshelves, rich wood desk and furniture and a marvelous mahogany spiral staircase.
Jenny Pinson provides the play with phenomenal props, and Higgins’ home is thusly stocked with a xylophone and three gramophones. Dark emerald pillars serve as the public place where we meet our protagonists, the races where they face their first test, the ballroom where they share a dance and the upscale estate where they battle their true test.
The set is supplemented with Andrew H. Meyers‘ lovely lighting, which casts shadows of the industrial overhead on the urchin world, illuminates the illustrious high society realm and enhances the colorful costumes of Theresa Ham. Perhaps the true star of the show, Ham’s costumes are a thing to behold, impeccably tailored to both the actors’ bodies and characters and painstakingly period. With director Rudy Hogenmiller overseeing the opulence, carefully constructing the statue itself, all elements work in perfect tandem at a pivotal moment of the play, when Eliza makes her true debut as a lady, and descends the staircase in a gorgeous gown—expertly lit by a spotlight that shines every sequin and sparkle, making her metamorphosis complete.
The director and design team give this creation form and figure, but it is the performances that give it life. It is a cast of carefully considered joy and impeccable comedic timing. Kirk Swenk is commendable as the doddering, dear Colonel Pickering, whose beneficence on Eliza’s behalf cannot go unnoticed in his mannered, mirthful take on the character. Cary Lovett could perhaps be a bit more bombastic as brute Alfie P. Doolittle in his musical numbers, but is delightfully disgusting in his scenework, garnishing many a guffaw from the audience. His unrefined, misogynistic manners draw an interesting parallel to Higgins’ refined misogynism, each unaware that their upbringing has rendered them a brute.
Anne Marie Lewis brings an intriguing Scottish burr and exasperation to Mrs. Pearce, and Joan McGrath brings an adroit and affable acidity to Mrs. Higgins, each an excellent portrait of an older woman at odds with their curmudgeonly charge, Henry. William Dwyer is enchanting as the admirable but airheaded Freddy Eynsford-Hill, with incredible vocal varnish. And with equally commendable voices are the quartet of street singers from the beginning of the show. Roger L. Bingaman’s marvelous music direction may be a tad curious on the rare occasion when actors talk-sing too often, but is really rather outstanding. Clayton Cross’ choreography contains such joie de vivre, and the ensemble executes it with measure and mirth. Hogenmiller’s deft direction is smart, quirky and lighthearted, making the play a bit less dramatic and actually playing a pivotal point of the fight between Eliza and Higgins for a laugh. Whether it is reverent or not, it’s incredibly entertaining, and it’s a new take and a breath of fresh air for what can be a musty musical.
This play is ultimately about Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, and this production is surely given the spark of life from the actors who play them. Nick Sandys has the unique honor to play Professor Henry Higgins in both this production, and in Remy Bumppo’s Pygmalion later this summer. Sandys is unafraid to underplay and untempted to create a user-friendly character. His portrayal is reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, Doctor House, or Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who, a brilliant man who knows everything but how to behave. He takes big risks, and they pay off.
Right out of the gate, his Higgins is dry, cold, haughty and seemingly unfeeling but for bouts of ill temper and the occasional semblance of amusement. As Sandys layers more and more into his performance as the show goes on, it not only parallels the change Eliza has on him as he tries to change her, but reveals that Higgins is not really a tyrant so much as he is tactless, lacking social grace because he simply doesn’t know any better. The audience becomes as fond of him as Eliza does, and the laughter he generates only grows exponentially as the show goes on. Sandys’ subtle performance really highlights the irony of a phonetics professor who understands the science of speech, but not the art of conversation, who is teaching someone how to be a lady when he has no idea how to be a gentleman.
The real executor of Higgins’ bet is Eliza, and the true star of the show Elizabeth Telford. Her voice is lustrous, lilting, and ‘loverly.’ It has both sonorous power and phenomenal sweetness. Wowing in the vocal department, she is also utterly riotous. Words would not only spoil her hilarity, but also fail to do her performance justice. Her hijinx at the Ascot Opening Day is worth the price of admission alone. Telford’s command of comedy is outclassed only by her sensitivity and spark. The chemistry between her and Sandys crackles, and they truly bring one another to life.
Light Opera Works’ My Fair Lady is an impeccably sculpted work of art, brought to life by a bevy of craftsmen both onstage and behind the scenes, and it is worth every brass farthing. It’s that old musical about the rain in Spain, but it is anything but plain.
Light Opera Works presents “My Fair Lady” through June 12 at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston. More information and tickets ($34 and up with patrons age 25 and younger half price) are available by calling (847) 920-5360 or online here. Photos here are by Joshua Lott.