There are few things as enchanting as rediscovering a once familiar musical through a new perspective. Jennifer Ellis’ strong-willed Eliza Doolittle is not only a delight to watch, but a masterpiece of style and grace. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston freshens the story of My Fair Lady into a modern take of capitalism, ambition, and human connection. Director Scott Edmiston reimagines the world in the 1930s London, complete with top hats and empire waists, breadlines and soulful melodies. This My Fair Lady feels even more accessible because of the nuanced acting by Ellis and the charming ignorance of Christopher Chew as Henry Higgins. The sixteen cast members provide gusto and life to the challenging and lengthy musical making this fit perfectly as an intimate chamber musical with all of the excitement and expertise that the Lyric Stage Company of Boston is known throughout the region. With an emphasis on storytelling this season, The Lyric brings a new story of rags-to-riches and poppy-cock-to-caviar dreams to its stage, but its heightened emphasis on treating people with dignity and finding the human connection that transcends class and economic status are themes worth dancing all night with this talented cast.
George Bernard Shaw wrote a deeply political and socially satirical work in his 1914 Pygmalion, and Edmiston finds the heart and soul of his work within Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 musical adaptation of My Fair Lady. His decision to reimagine the world in 1930s London is not only well-considered, but also well-executed. From Gail Astrid Buckley’s stunning and detailed costumes, especially flattering on Ellis with her floor-length gowns and showcased in the “Embassy Waltz” and “Ascot Gavotte”, to the simple but fluid set design by Janie E. Howland, to the mannerisms and directions (with strong assistance by Dialect Coach Amelia Broome), this production feels at home in its new time period. Moreover, Edmiston gives us a lens into this world which is much more accessible than Shaw’s original play or even Lerner and Loewe’s standard time period. It would be far too easy, with such a talented cast and gorgeous score (reimagined with expert skill by Music Director Catherine Stornetta into a chamber musical with keyboard, violin, and cello, which gives the musical a much softer, fluid, and luxurious feel), for us to ignore Edmiston’s soft hand in orchestrating the magic to make the many changes and moving pieces slide into place. From the seamless and numerous scene changes, to the original and authentic relationships, especially between Chew’s Higgins and Ellis’ Eliza, Edmiston is at his prime as a director and originator. I hope that his strong work encourages other theatre companies to consider the possibilities for storytelling once-considered immense and untouchable musicals into manageable and intimate stories for the Greater Boston stages.
From her first entrance, Ellis delivers a bounty of energy and power to her Eliza Doolittle. Gone is the sad, mopey play-thing for men, and, in its place, we have a woman who understands how society works, how she fits into that society, and her only way out (hint, she doesn’t believe that it begins and end with a man). Her Eliza commands the stage with a carefree presence, but she always carries a glint in her eye for the potential to show her strength when challenged. She leads the ensemble in a longing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” but she rolls up her sleeves to deliver on “Just You Wait,” showing the range of the person within both Eliza as a character and Ellis as a performer. Her dexterity as a singer is only matched by her command of the dialect and the slow evolution (with some hilarious facial tics) of her enunciation and diction to the Standard English we know and love. Luckily, we can enjoy the full rich and luxurious elegance of Ellis’ clear and articulate soprano in her excitable “I Could Have Danced All Night.” We could have listened all night.
Christopher Chew brings a welcome charm to Henry Higgins that raises the character above the artifice and stereotype of relying on sixty years of Rex Harrison impersonators. Instead, his bashful and boyish mannerisms make him an outsider and recluse in this stuffy English society. Of course, just as I type that last sentence, I wondered about the colonialism from Shaw’s (and Lerner and Loewe’s) original and Edmiston’s adaptation; have we switched from English to British society? Honestly, who has the time to care when you have these engaging performances before you and stunning score filling the intimate theatre. Chew challenges our perception of who Higgins is and can be, and he plays it to some solid success. His aloofness and ignorance (bordering on a lack of empathy or awareness of human dignity) provide wonderful commentary on scholarship, teachers, and the upper class’s perception of their position in the world. The difficulty remains in telling the gorgeous “musical un-love story.” Even if you accept that Higgins and Eliza learn to respect rather than love each other, there needs to be some draw towards the companionship between them. Chew and Ellis waver in this commitment, but mostly strike a chord of respectful friendship with the expectation that they need each other through their flaws and solidarity.
The supporting cast delivers some exceptional performances, especially Cheryl McMahon’s wise Mrs. Pearce, Beth Gotha’s scene-stealing and dry Mrs. Higgins, and J. T. Turner’s energetic and ne’er-do-well Alfred P. Doolittle. “With a Little Bit of Luck” emphasizes the lower class through the lively chorus and the boisterous sound, lead by Turner. The “Ascot Gavotte” is choreographed to hilarious effect by David Connolly who orchestrates each movement with precision and care, showing a sharp eye and ear for the space and score. Remo Airaldi’s Colonel Pickering is adorable and feels like he could be an endearing mouse sidekick with his tiny hand movements and frantic pacing, if this musical was ever made into a Disney animated movie. Airaldi’s rhythm runs slow in Act II, and his performance feels like he lacks focus or motivation after assisting Higgins with his reformation of Eliza. Jared Troilo gives an enrapturing performance of the classic tenor solo “On the Street Where You Live.” His Freddy is much more unsure of himself, and a rightful fop, akin to Shaw’s original play, which emphasizes Higgin’s distain for Freddy. Part of me missed Troilo’s effortless charm and easy appeal in this role; I wanted to fall in love with him again and again, but instead, I felt the same hesitation that perhaps Eliza felt in deciding whether to accept Freddy’s advances. Overall, Troilo made difficult choices to make a more compelling and authentic performance fit into an already tight production. I will wait for my next opportunity to see Ellis and Troilo fall in love onstage because the two have a warm rapport and timbres to their voices that accent and blend well together. In short, their relationship is a musical theatre match onstage, but this relationship never felt fulfilled in this story.
While the scenes progressed quickly, thanks to the minimalist set design by Howland, the set felt content neutral to me. The floor-to-ceiling tiles of phonetic symbols provided an interesting backdrop that never added context or meaning to the new setting or story accented in other parts of the production. The highlighting of these symbols as a periodic table of precision and study, along with the emphasis on the science of the period, provide interesting sound-bytes, but they never add to a fully-formed sentence of meaning or context. Karen Perlow’s marvelous accents of lighting and color shape the production nicely, changing time and place, emphasizing the rich technicolor world of the upper class with the harsh sunlight of the lower class’s world. Perlow’s lighting worked excellently with Buckley’s costumes, especially in the ensemble scenes; the ensemble played the working class members, servants to Higgins’ home, and upper class snobbery, and each group felt well differentiated in not only their clothing but in the costuming detail of fit, color, and material. The world of Edmiston’s My Fair Lady was mostly complete and the transformation of his Eliza and Higgins was masterful.
To tell a popular story in a new and opinionated way takes education, precision, and, most of all, conviction. Ellis plays her Eliza with commitment and poise, charm and elegance, struggle and triumph, that she is a treat to applaud and cheer with each crowd-pleasing number. Chew’s Higgins has a harder role in our post-feminist society, but he tackles the challenge with the mastery of a keen awareness of the role, its quirks, and its potential. Edmiston and Stornetta deliver a classic story through these two crowd-favorite performers and an energetic ensemble. The Lyric’s My Fair Lady could pave the way for other theatre companies to take risks in their artistic creativity, intellectual curiosity, and willingness to wrestle with the uncertainty of telling a story. Much like Eliza, this production was an underdog which more than rose to the challenge to win our hearts and minds. Now, if only we could have a little more people with faith in the Elizas of the world.