It has been called “The Perfect Musical.”
Judging from the reactions of the near-capacity crowd during its Wednesday night opening at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre, that description is definitely accurate.
In case there is any doubt, that “perfect musical” is “My Fair Lady,” a work with roots in ancient Greece through the 20thcentury when productions of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” were successful on the stage and the screen.
Add the music of Frederick Loewe and the lyrics and book (with only a few changes from Shaw) of Alan Jay Lerner and you have the multi-Tony Award winning 1956 musical that is currently having its fourth revival on Broadway.
Difficult to determine just what makes a show — straight or musical — seem fresh and, even more important, relevant after 60+ years. Whatever that intangible something is, the story of the flower seller and the professor has got it — in spades! Especially when it has a production that overcomes the three-hour running time (including intermission), which is pretty standard for all MFL productions.
Under the direction of Wagon Wheel alumnus Tony Humrichouser, this “Fair Lady” does just that.
Having seen “MFL” more times than I can count, from original Broadway (yes, I am that old) to high schools and community theaters to Equity and non-Equity tours, I approach any production with, I am afraid, a rather jaundiced eye (i.e. It takes a lot to keep me interested).
No danger here!
Although my first thought, from the onrush of brass in the overture, was that there might be trouble ahead, it only took a few measures for the 10-piece orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Andrew Callahan to set the tempos right.
It quickly began to be “Lovely!”
The vocal center of the show is Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower seller whose dream of going up in the world is exacerbated by phonetics expert Henry Higgins’ declaration that he could “make a duchess out of this draggle-tail guttersnipe,” primarily by changing the way she speaks.
In the person of petite Allsun O’Malley, Eliza emerges as a feisty, independent, strong-minded and, under the dirt and rags, a very attractive young woman. he has a fluid soprano voice that easily meets the demands of Eliza’s changing life — from wistful hopes to frustrated anger to possible reality to emerging-but-assured independence. O’Malley handles all with enviable ease and obvious emotional intelligence.
As Higgins, the unwitting catalyst to her eventual emancipation, Ben Dicke moved arrogantly from indifference to interest to confidence to defiance to near-capitulation in the battle of the sexes. This while crisply spitting out the lyrics of the best “songs” ever written for non-singers, all of which obviously struck responsive chords with the enthusiastic audience.
In Eliza’s father, cockney dustman Alfred P. Doolittle, Grayson Samuels adds another to his 2018 list of memorable characters. Struggling to retain his status in the lower class, he eventually succumbs, however unwillingly, to being raised to middle class respectability via a bequest from an American millionaire. His rousing numbers with his cockney chums are highlights choreographed, as are all the dances, by guest artist Joe Nicastro.
Another WW alum, Andy Robinson, is Colonel Pickering, a linguist who strikes up an instant friendship with Higgins and offers to pay expenses for his experiment with Eliza. His Col. Pickering is a Col. Blimp with a heart of gold,
In the “no small parts” category are Jennifer K Shepherd as Higgins’ socially prominent mother, Nick Case as lovesick Freddy Eynsford-Hill and De’jah Jrvai as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper. Case delivers a solid rendition of one of the show’s best-known ballads, “On the Street Where You Live.”
The work of costume designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck plays an integral part in this production, with focus especially on the famed black-and-white palette of the “Ascot Gavotte” scene, featuring outrageously top heavy chapeaux balanced beautifully by the ladies of the ensemble. Mrs. Higgins hat, for example, sports waving rushes that might have grown up around Lake Michigan.
As always, there is attention to detail in costumes and props, If I may nit-pick, I would say that Pickering needs a top hat and cape (or coat) for the opening scene which is outside on a rainy evening.
And for fans of the 1964 film (and most revivals) know that the act one finale, which was the elaborate Embassy Ball, has been cut from most productions not only for cost but also for time.
I have to say, you will never miss it!
MY FAIR LADY plays through July 7 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.
‘My Fair Lady’