It’s a tale as old as time—or at least one told a time or two. Two people meet with absolutely nothing in common, coming from completely different levels of society. They have no reason to give each other a second glance but just give it three hours, the magic of plot, and they’ll end up together by the end … maybe?
Opera House Theatre Company has kicked off their summer season with a smash hit on their hands: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s classic “My Fair Lady.” Under the watchful direction of Shane Fernando, the show is beautifully staged, with all the elements of musical theatre firing on all cylinders. From the talent presented on stage to all the brilliant work put into the production from behind the curtain, it needs to be experienced because it’s theatre at the top of its game. Though it wows in presentation, the fact can’t be missed the story itself is very outdated, despite presenting ongoing issues of class struggles, sexism, and abuse. Within the age of #MeToo, some punch lines will raise an eyebrow instead of land the laugh.
The story set in Edwardian era London follows the foul-speaking flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Emilia Torello), who becomes the focal point of a bet between speech therapist Henry Higgins (Chris Rickert) and linguist hobbyist Colonel Pickering (George Domby). The two take on a gentleman’s wager, the subject of which is Eliza’s social standing. Can Higgins, a man of a cold but witty demeanor, turn the kind-hearted yet lowly street urchin Eliza into a proper English lady within half a year’s time? It’s a feat that becomes more challenging than originally thought, as the figureheads of the two classes clash. Though the story plays out like a “will-they, won’t they” between the two leads, the show does a better job underlining the societal gap which allows some to be seen as better than others.
As the curtain rises, the show takes over the stage with each player giving all they have to the production, from leading role to ensemble. They create one well-oiled machine of a musical. The opening perfectly captures the hustle and bustle of London streets, with organized chaos of lords and ladies rubbing shoulders with drunks and beggars. It’s an eloquent way to tease the nonstop energy about to be met at every turn. The audience is introduced to its strong-willed leads in front of the opera on a rainy night; the prim-and-proper Higgins squares off against the thick cockney accent of Eliza. At first sight, it’s an ongoing fight between the two, with both actors holding their own, round after round.
Higgins isn’t a terrible person; he’s not a monstrous man, just a jerk. He’s not callus just direct, never rude always honest, and so blind to his behavior he must have been a lonely child. Rickert seamlessly embodies Higgins and takes what could be an off-putting role and fills it with boyish charm. I found myself shaking my head with a smile instead of a groan at his actions toward others. Carrying on like a man who physically and intellectually dominates a room, Rickert plays the perfect foil to the unkempt but unfazed Torello as Eliza. Their banter plays out like the Doctor bickering with his companion in a lost episode of “Doctor Who.” Though at times Rickert falls flat with the humor of the role, his attitude and voice bring all his numbers to life. A prime example, “Why Can’t the English,” opens the show so well to set up Higgins’ outlook on the world around him.
Everyone in Higgins’ life is more apt to put up with him rather than actually like him, a fact with which he seems resolved. The ensemble shines throughout the entire show, and pulls off one outstanding dance number after the next. During the song “Poor Professor Higgins,” their growing stress and frustration over the ongoing experiment is palpable—as if this wasn’t the first time they’ve been at the mercy of the good professor’s linguistic obsession.
His head housekeeper Mrs. Pearce is played by LaRaisha DiEvelyn Dionne (admittedly who is someone I believe can do no wrong on stage). She gives her role so much affection and attitude, it’s like a fun cross between Aunt Bee and Alfred Pennyworth. During “A Hymn to Him” she conveys so much with just a cut of her eyes, and it adds the perfect punctuation to the song. Even Higgins’ own mother, played wonderfully by Jemila Ericson, finds him to be a trying figure in her life.
In fact, the only person who seems to be able to stand the professor is his new friend Colonel Hugh Pickering. Given a joyous glee by George Domby, Pickering finds great amusement in the brash behavior of Higgins. He also matches it in defense of Eliza when the professor’s lessons become too harsh on the young girl. Domby takes a role that could easily become a third wheel to make the colonel a vital member of the team—so much so that during the rousing fun number, “The Rain in Spain,” I kept thinking of another famed trio, Kelly-O’Connor,-Reynolds in “Singin’ in the Rain.” It offers the same energy as “Good Morning.”
Outside the world of Henry Higgins, and serving as a kind of antagonist to Eliza, there is Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father and all-around human embodiment of sloth, maybe gluttony. Either way, Doolittle is a world of fun. He’s seen the highs of life; he’s seen the lows of life and knows how to deal with them all by getting drunk. Richard Bunting owns the role. Every time he is thrown onto the stage, it becomes clear the life of the party has arrived. “With a Little Bit of Luck” is a grand amount of entertainment, and creates pure joy for the performer and the audience lucky enough to see it.
Also of note is Kellen Hanson as Freddy, a young man who becomes starry-eyed over Eliza. He wows with “On the Street Where You Live.”
Still, he manages to come off more like an unsettled stalker than a lovesick puppy.
With the fair lady herself, Eliza Doolittle, it’s very safe to say that Torello is a star in the making. She dominates the famed role; from street rat to high-brow lady of London, Torello exudes the confidence needed to hold her own in both worlds. At the start of the show she embodies a woman who has crawled her way through the dirty streets with her chin held high. Even through her thick cockney accent, she plays Eliza with a dreamer’s heart and grasps the audience’s with “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely?” Simultaneously, she shows off the hellcat Eliza can be with “Just You Wait.” When she finally becomes the pulp of Professor Higgins, she stands like the rock against the waves, never backing down from his non-stop assault. After she finally begins to speak “properly,” the sheer bliss for what she has accomplished buzzes in “I Could Have Danced All Night”; it is here where Torello’s voice truly shines and explodes. Even above singing, Torello knocks the pathos of the role out of the park. She truly shows the hurt Eliza feels upon realizing she has been more the butt of a joke than a studious student. However, her disapproving howl, can at times resemble that of the death rattle of a cat.
Without overlooking all the details that went into creating the final product (and that would be a crime to theatre), Tina Leak’s choreography is perfection. She’s crafted stunning and individualized themes to evoke a sense of where each character’s status in life falls. The upper classes had a very rigid demeanor to movement, while the lower social-standing cut loose, as if understanding how the world already views them.
Also, the show has dancing horses!
Selina Harvey’s costume design balances the theme of class so well, but the standouts have to be the costuming for Eliza. Her dresses for both the Ascot Racecourse scene, as well as the ball toward the end of Act One are breathtaking.
Dallas LaFon creates a wonderful scene of emotion by lighting the moods of the characters. While in the past, issues of being unable to understand the audio of shows at the Hall has arisen, “My Fair Lady” is so clear to hear, so that the audience can hang on every word.
It’s a perfect summer blockbuster of a play for theatre-goers. Though it does brandish a roughly three-hour run time, the production’s pace never wavers and moves quickly in dramatic fashion, leaving audiences smiling all the way home.
My Fair Lady
June 15-17 and 22-24, 8 p.m. or 3 p.m. only on Sundays
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St. Tickets: $27-$32
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