Simplicity is the key to director Scott Edmiston’s passionate vision for this musical.
My Fair Lady Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture Pygmalion. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Musical Director, Catherine Stornetta. Choreographer, David Connolly. Staged by the Lyric Stage Company at 140 Clarendon Street, Copley Square, Boston, MA, through October 11.
By Terry Byrne
Under the direction of Scott Edmiston, the Lyric Stage Company’s production of My Fair Lady shifts a pleasant cliché into a heartfelt tale of transformation.
The Lyric’s production illuminates playwright George Bernard Shaw’s fascinating characters, but by handing them to the talented singers Jennifer Ellis and Christopher Chew, we also hear every glorious note of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s score. Although Shaw resisted turning his play Pygmalion into a musical, the creators got around him by using the screenplay he wrote for the 1938 film version of Pygmalion as the book for the 1956 musical.
On stage at the Lyric, Ellis in particular is absolutely luminous as Eliza Doolittle, the flower seller with dreams of a better life who becomes the pupil of the pompous professor of elocution, Henry Higgins. Ellis portrays Eliza with an unadorned sincerity that makes the familiar “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” sound brand new, while her beautiful soprano makes “I Could Have Danced All Night” thrilling all over again.
Chew has played a variety of leading men, from Sweeney Todd to Shrek, but has rarely been so playful. His Higgins is of course, utterly self-absorbed, but Chew lightens his arrogance with the innocence of a man who is blissfully unaware. He is practically giddy when he sings “You Did It,” and with “A Hymn to Him,” better known as “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man,” Chew brilliantly enunciates every word of the tongue-twisting patter song, without missing a note.
Simplicity is the key to Edmiston’s vision for this musical. From the three-piece musical accompaniment of Catherine Stornetta on piano, Emily Dahl on violin, and Javier Caballero on cello, to Janie E. Howland’s nearly abstract set, the characters are always front and center. Still, it’s a pleasure to watch Jared Troilo, as the besotted Freddy Einsford-Hill, work every inch of the set in the breathtaking “On the Street Where You Live,” which starts out quietly and builds to a stunning crescendo.
In addition to Troilo, Ellis and Chew get outstanding support from Remo Airaldo as Colonel Pickering, who provides reasoned balance to Higgins’ bluster; J.T. Turner as Eliza’s father, a proud member of the “undeserving poor” and Cheryl McMahon as Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Pearce.
David Connolly’s choreography complements the staging by balancing the big, cleverly staged musical hall production numbers, such as “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get me to the Church On Time” with elegant pairs dancing in “The Rain in Spain” and the “Embassy Waltz.” Connolly’s nimbly combines members of the talented ensemble; his tableaus offer a sense of time and place without ever feeling crowded or cramped.
Costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley has outdone herself with costumes that blend beautifully in numbers like the “Ascot Gavotte” and then pop out brilliantly during the “Embassy Waltz.” Ellis’ transformation from “squashed cabbage leaf” to “princess” is beautifully realized through Buckley’s colors and styles.
Howland’s set, a combination of art deco framing and a London skyline with scrims decorated with the phonetic alphabet, takes us, with the help of Karen Perlow’s lighting, from one setting to another without the need for complicated set changes. In fact, it’s a tribute to the entire production team that a musical that originally bowed on Broadway with a cast of 45 should play so comfortably in the Lyric’s intimate theater with an outstanding company of just 16.
This production of My Fair Lady captures all the joy of Lerner and Lowe’s music without sacrificing any of Shaw’s thoughtful comments on class, equality, and independence.
Terry Byrne has been writing about the arts for nearly two decades. She has an MFA in Playwriting from Boston University and is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.