Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” is an American stage classic that’s an all-time favorite among musical theater fans; yet strangely, there seem to be precious few opportunities to see a live production.
All the more reason to get to the Encore Theatre – presuming you can still purchase tickets (2 performances were recently added to accommodate high demand) – as soon as you can.
For although, from a tech standpoint, Encore’s “loverly,” three hour production embodies the modesty of its blackbox theater – as director Tony Walton notes in the show’s program, Encore’s lack of wings or overhead space for a fly system limits the ways that production teams can flesh out a show’s scenic changes – the talent both on-stage and behind-the-scenes is anything but.
Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” “My Fair Lady” tells the tale of arrogant phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Daniel Gerroll), who makes a bet with a colleague, Colonel Pickering (Dale Dobson), that if given a few months’ time to instruct an uneducated, cockney flower peddler from the street, named Eliza Doolittle (Jessica Grove), Higgins could pass her off as a lady of London society.
So the game’s afoot; but as Eliza’s vowels shift, so does her sense of herself and her place in the world – presuming she can still find one when Higgins is done with her.
Upon entering the Encore, you might be surprised to see two large screens flanking the stage; after all, “My Fair Lady” – now celebrating its 60th anniversary – seems a less-than-obvious choice for multimedia bells and whistles. However, hearkening back to Walton’s program note, the director uses the screens to project scenic backdrops, created in the spirit of the line drawings that appeared in the first published version of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” while also serving as an homage the original “My Fair Lady” Broadway production’s lavish set pieces. (The lead actress in that production, Julie Andrews, had been Walton’s wife at the time.)
Otherwise, Walton’s set includes a movable staircase and Higgins’ flat’s stoop (so that Freddy Eynsford-Hill can croon “On the Street Where You Live,” of course); meanwhile, props master Anne Donovan provides Edwardian furnishings for Higgins’ home, as well as his mother’s, and Caitlin Graham conveys this buttoned up British era by way of her meticulous costume design. (Yuka Silvera oversaw Eliza’s wardrobe.)
Choreographer Matthew Brennan does outstanding work, using Encore’s fairly small space thoughtfully while still managing to cash in on the zesty fun of ensemble numbers like “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and making “Ascot Gavotte” hilariously stuffy.
Robert Perry designed the show’s lights, and music director Tyler Driskill casts a spell by way his work with the show’s familiar, beloved score, so that the men’s quartet featured in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” gave me goosebumps, as did Grove’s stirring take on “I Could Have Danced All Night.” (And anyone who heard an NBC announcer crediting Hungarian Olympic swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s husband/trainer for her gold medal win on Saturday night may experience a little deja vu when hearing Higgins and Pickering congratulating each other for Eliza’s accomplishments in “You Did It.”)
In the end, though, the performers have to execute this tried-and-true material, and Encore’s cast is top-notch. In supporting roles, Keith Allen Kalinowski winningly steals scenes as Eliza’s work-averse, hard-drinking father, Alfred P. Doolittle, and Connie Cowper is deliciously wry as Higgins’ mother. Gerroll – an actor with years of experience in TV, film, and theater – jumped a few musical cues, and stumbled on a line or two, at Sunday’s matinee performance; but he otherwise presents a distinctive, stubborn, bratty Higgins who has fleeting moments of humanity and vulnerability (movingly showcased in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”).
But Grove is the show’s anchor, and she more than delivers. With clear, gorgeously expressive vocals, she pulls the audience into Eliza’s world, thus making her dreams (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”), her breakthrough (“The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night’) and her frustrations with the world she find herself in (“Show Me,” “Without You”) all the more emotionally palpable.
Yes, the show’s last moment still troubled me, as it always does. (Your slippers should be your own problem, Professor. You’re a grown man.) But at least in Gerroll’s and Grove’s (and director Walton’s) capable hands, I left the theater feeling as though Higgins’ last, seemingly rhetorical question could be viewed, in its clumsy way, as the closest the haughty professor can come to apologizing to, and expressing respect and affection for, Eliza.
And while that might not necessarily guarantee a “loverly” future for her – in this final scene, “My Fair Lady” always suddenly feels like one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” – it’s nonetheless hard to deny the many, many charms of Eliza’s tale of transformation.
“May Fair Lady” opened at the Encore Musical Theatre on August 4 and will run through until August 28. For more information or to acquire tickets visit the Encore Musical Theatre Company’s website at the link embedded in this sentence.
Jenn McKee is WeLoveDexter.com’s designated entertainment writer.