South Bend Civic Theatre opened the second musical of its 2018 season, “My Fair Lady,” Friday evening in the Wilson Auditorium.
The now-classic musical, with music by Frederick Loewe and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, has its roots, literally, in antiquity, based on the Greek myth of the anti-female sculptor Pygmalion who falls in love with his own creation, the statue of a woman he names Galatea.
The plot came to Lerner and Loewe via George Bernard Shaw, whose 1913 play “Pygmalion” led to several films, specifically a 1938 British movie that, almost verbatim, provides the lyrics and dialogue for the 1956 Broadway production and the 1964 film.
In the more than 60 years since that first NYC production, “My Fair Lady” has played around the world and returned to Broadway four times, including the present.
In addition to the award-winning score, the primary attraction of any production lies in the relationship between the main characters: Professor Henry Higgins and cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. There must be a connection, at first adversarial then changing as their interaction changes, or the three-hour (including intermission) is nothing more than a long exchange of dialogue.
Happily, the SBCT production, under the direction of David Case, has two performers who fit their characters snugly, making their verbal fireworks a pleasure.
As Henry Higgins, Ted Manier is the perfect picture of an upper-class gentleman of the Edwardian era, well-educated and self-absorbed, focusing on his own area of expertise which happens to be phonetics. He has little regard for the feelings of anyone else until he finally realizes that his own can be affected by another. Those used to hearing a talk/sung delivery of Higgins’ many declarative numbers will be pleasantly surprised that each indeed has a melody!
The dreadful speech of Eliza Doolittle is what interests him at first. In the hands of Natalie MacRae-Waggoner, she emerges as a woman “to be reckoned with”. Her Higgins-induced metamorphoses is gradual and believable and a pleasure to watch and hear. Her clear, warm soprano is at home from wistful ballad (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly<”) to triumphant declaration (“Without You”).
The comedic melodies are the assignment of Eliza’s dustman father, Alfred P. Doolittle, played here by Roy Bronkema, with some high-stepping assistance from pub mates Harry (Steve Chung) and Jamie (John Van Paris) and their fellow celebrants at the local tavern.
Justin Green’s solid baritone delivers one of the show’s best known ballads, “On The Street Where You Live,” and succeeds in making Freddy Eynsford-Hill a sympathetic character not just a love-struck dolt.
In the no-small-roles department, SBCT veteran Mary Ann Moran deftly defines the sympathetic society matron who puts up with her son, Henry Higgins, and Dawn Hagerty portrays Mrs. Pearce, his equally long-suffering and equally kindly housekeeper.
Denise Kuehner directs the orchestra, which is off stage. It does well but is not helped by the sound system which tends to be rather tinny,
Set designer Jeff Barack has created an awesome Covent Garden colonnade which completely covers the back of the stage. It is instantly imposing but, of necessity, remains there throughout as do the tavern entrance at stage right and the door to Higgins’ home, stage left. Interiors are suggested with tables, chairs, etc. and one set piece which rolls on and off frequently.
One of the most famous scenes in this musical is the Ascot race, for which original costumer Cecil Beaton designed elegant gowns and hats, all different and all in black and white. Every production attempts to recreate this. It is a difficult assignment and one which, more often than not, falls short.
That is understandable but not the complete lack of period in the rest of the costuming, especially in the Embassy Ball in which the gowns seem rather to be ladies’ choice.
MY FAIR LADY plays through July 29 in the Warner Auditorium. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112.