Virtually any production of “My Fair Lady” – one of the best-beloved musicals ever – is always welcome.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” with books and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, the 1956 Broadway hit has seen several revivals, inspired a major Hollywood film, and is expected to return to the Great White Way next year.
Who doesn’t know the story of the uneducated British flower girl transformed by the sophisticated phonetics professor, who, unbeknownst to him at first, changes as well? And who doesn’t love such delightful songs as “The Rain in Spain” and “On the Street Where You Live?? Happily, the show can be seen now at Olney Theatre Center. With its fine acting and singing and clever, but mostly minimalist set, this production overall rekindles the affection and admiration many of us feel for this classic musical and will no doubt win over younger generations as well. The production’s “fair lady,” Brittany Campbell, has a “loverly” voice (to quote one of her songs), which soars above the difficult high notes of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But also packs a vengeful punch in “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins.
Like the character of Eliza herself, Campbell comes into her own later in the play as she not only pronounces her vowels properly but also finds her voice.
Danny Bernardy thrills as the misogynistic, demanding, self-absorbed Professor Higgins. Although his songs may be less known than the more romantic ones in the show, he does full justice to the witty “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man” but also to the more-contemplative “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face.”
Todd Scofield, with his comic timing and ability to convey the sympathy Higgins seems to lack, has just the right touch as Colonel Pickering.
Alfred P. Doolittle is a role Chris Genebach was born to play. He is crude, rude, amoral, and utterly charming.
Benjamin Lurye, as the dim-witted but devoted Freddy, Eliza’s suitor, injects an ounce of self-mockery into “On the Street Where You live.”
Valerie Leonard is doubly delightful as the starchy, yet sensible, Mrs. Pearce, Professor Higgins’s housekeeper, and as his sardonic mother. In one delicious moment, Mrs. Higgins pauses, then laughs out loud, when she realizes Eliza has vanquished her son.
An ensemble of 10 fills the other roles, including that of Higgins’s former student, now rival, the Hungarian Zoltan Karpathy (Christopher Mueller). Young, versatile, and energetic, these actors portray dustmen, the servants in the Higgins household, and spectators at the Ascot Race Track. Speaking of Ascot, sound designer Matt Rowe has added a fantastic touch – the sounds of galloping hooves in surround-sound.
Conducting the unseen 11-piece orchestra with verve is Christopher Youstra, Olney Theatre Center’s music director.
Grady McLeod Bowman’s frenetic choreography involves a lot of movement you probably haven’t seen in other productions. Even Higgins jumps on furniture. The cast was up to the task, but somehow it bordered on “hyper.”
In a show about class differences, costume designer Pei Lee gets the opportunity to dress the actors in gowns as well as dustmen’s outfits.
Two highlights of James Fouchard’s scenic design is the wallsize alphabet board in Higgins’s study and the boxing-room feel of the basic set.
Change for the sake of change seems to be the trend in revivals today, especially regarding “older” musicals. Overall, the spirit of the musical has remained, under the respectful, yet, reimagined, direction by Alan Souza.
But at the risk of quibbling a little, one might question a few changes. Moving the action to 1921 (from 1912) heightens the feminist theme, but do you really need to do this in a work inspired by Shaw? It’s also jarring to see Mrs. Higgins and Eliza in pants.
Casting young is fine, except for the fact that Eliza refers to Higgins as being closer to her in age than Pickering. The pared-down Embassy Ball is more economical, but seems empty.
Most of all, having Eliza and Higgins look like they’re in love at the Ball and definitively involved when the show closes may be sexy and appeals to the romantics among us, but the power of the slightly ambiguous ending Lerner conceived is lost.
But this is quibbling. Thank you, Mr. Souza, and Olney, for revisiting “My Fair Lady,” a truly wonderful show.
My Fair Lady continues through July 23, at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. For more information, visit www.olneytheatre.org. The play runs approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. Olney recommends that audience members be 10 and above.