To say that Broadway veteran actress Jessica Grove – who’s married to Encore Theatre co-founder Dan Cooney, and who’s starring in Encore’s new production of the Lerner and Loewe classic, “My Fair Lady” – has been having a busy year would be a gross understatement.
“I was pregnant at callbacks (for ‘My Fair Lady’). I read with a few people, and I kept saying, ‘Just ignore this,’” Grove said, circling one hand over her midsection. (Her baby daughter, the couple’s second child, is now four months old.) “I didn’t know how it would work out, exactly. I honestly feel like my voice is just coming back through the rehearsal process, so that’s getting better. And throw a move on top of it – we’re moving (from New York) to Chicago. So right when I thought I’d get a head start on my lines, instead, I was packing. And we didn’t know we were moving until April, after Lolly was born. And then we had to find a place to live in Chicago.”
But through it all, Grove’s commitment to playing Eliza Doolittle, a dream role, never wavered, and two highly accomplished colleagues signed on to be part of the show, too.
British actor Daniel Gerroll, who starred in “Enchanted April” and “High Society” on Broadway, and who’s appeared in various TV shows and films – including “Madoff,” “Still Alice,” “The Starter Wife,” “Ugly Betty,” “Sex & the City,” “Seinfeld,” “Cheers,” “Chariots of Fire” and more – will play Professor Henry Higgins; and Oscar, Tony, and Emmy Award winning costume and set designer (and Julie Andrews’ first husband) Tony Walton will direct the show.
“Tony designed sets and costumes for ‘The Boy Friend,’ the touring production that Julie Andrews directed eleven years ago, and the role I played was Polly, which is the one Julie originated in 1954 at age 19,” said Grove. “Tony and I became friends, and when the tour ended, he employed me for a while as a personal assistant. … He and (his wife) Gen became like family to me. … They’ve been my surrogate parents in New York.”
After the couple attended Encore’s opening performances of “Into the Woods” last summer, in which Grove played the Witch, “Tony just sort of jokingly said to Daniel – ‘Lucky Dan,’ he calls him – he said, ‘When are you going to ask me to direct something here?’” said Grove, noting that after she campaigned to get “My Fair Lady” into Encore’s production lineup, “Dan was like, ‘Are you comfortable emailing Tony to say we’d like to take him up on his offer?’ … Gen and (Tony) wrote back together, and it said, ‘Yippee! That sounds so fun, and we love Michigan, and we’ll have such a great time.’ There was no hesitation at all.”
And because Walton and Gerroll have long been friends, Gerroll – who previously played Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion” (the basis for “My Fair Lady”) at Minneapolis’ famed Guthrie Theater in 2004 – was happy to play the snobby, tyrannical linguist once more. But the connections don’t stop there.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, my parents took me to my first show, and it was ‘My Fair Lady’ with Julie Andrews,” said Gerroll. “Tony was married to her at the time. And when he’s involved in a show, he sees every single performance, so he was probably in that theater when I went to the theater for the first time at 9 years old. … So when he contacted me about doing the show here in Dexter, I said, ‘Of course I’m going to do it.’”
“My Fair Lady,” which premiered on Broadway 60 years ago, in 1976, tells the story of Eliza, a young, cockney woman who sells flowers on the street to survive in Edwardian England. When a fussy phoneticist (Higgins) crosses Eliza’s path, he makes a bet with a colleague that he could significantly alter her life, simply by teaching her how to speak correctly. To this end, Eliza moves into Higgins’ home for intensive elocution lessons; but as her manner and speech grow more genteel, she becomes someone she doesn’t recognize.
Actor Rex Harrison was the definitive Henry Higgins, both on stage and in the 1964 film adaptation of “My Fair Lady” – he appeared in the theater production Gerroll watched as a child – so playing the role without being influenced by Harrison’s interpretation can be challenging.
“I felt myself looking away from (Harrison’s portrayal) quite a lot,” said Gerroll. “During the Guthrie’s production of ‘Pygmalion,’ I found myself imitating him, just like I did at home when I was 9. But because of that, I kind of got it out of my system. … (Harrison) gave Higgins this monarchical, aristocratic mien, whereas my version is a man who’s never grown up, and who’s spoiled and selfish.”
But because an actor must necessarily consider how the character arrived at this point, Gerroll thoughts on Higgins went further.
“The thing is, there are some people … who are so smart that they don’t become like everyone else,” said Gerroll. “ … They don’t do what other people do, and there’s this zone where they’re their most creative selves, usually during adolescence. And the longer it lasts, the less they feel obliged to become civilized. … (Higgins) has this rule where, in his mind, he’s not behaving badly. He’s just behaving the same way toward all human souls. It’s like a religion, almost.”
And while Gerroll may have exorcized Harrison from his portrayal of Higgins, you may still spot a subtle homage to him on Encore’s set for “My Fair Lady.”
“There’s a caged bird on the stage,” Gerroll said. “I’ve named him Sexy Rexy, in honor of Harrison.”
“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.