My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady Shaw

Music by Frederick Loewe
Book & Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Directed by Molly Smith
Choreographed by Daniel Pelzig
Musical direction by Paul Sportelli
Performed by Deborah Hay, Benedict Campbell, Neil Barclay and Patrick Galligan, with Sharry Flett, Patty Jamieson and Mark Uhre
Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake
April 13 to October 30, 2011
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

New Look at an Old Favourite

There’s a colourful rendition of an old favourite musical currently running in Niagara on the Lake, and if any theatre can do justice to My Fair Lady, it should be the Shaw Festival, since the musical is based on Shaw’s Pygmalion.

Linguist Henry Higgins makes a bet with his colleague Colonel Pickering that he can take lowly Eliza Doolittle, a filthy flower seller on London’s streets and turn her into a lady who he can pass off as aristocracy at the embassy ball. All he has to do is rid her of her unladylike screeching and strong Cockney accent. A very arrogant professor of language, Higgins is confident he can remake Eliza, changing her language and vocabulary and buying her fancy gowns.

Deborah Hay makes Eliza funny. She has a Lucille Ball-like face with very expressive eyes, and uses her body language to create comedy. Her rendition of “Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait” keeps everyone laughing. Hay also possesses a good Cockney accent: Her squawks are actually unintelligible in the opening scenes, and you can hear her struggle as tries to put her “h’s” in the right places. Too often, actresses playing Eliza can’t maintain the Cockney accent, and then make the transition too easily and too rapidly, losing it completely. But Hay shows Eliza’s slip-ups along the way with great hilarity.

Benedict Campbell is excellent as Professor Henry Higgins who firmly believes that the lower class has no rights, and it is perfectly fine to meddle in Eliza’s life. Campbell is excellent at portraying Higgins’ cavalier attitude. His Higgins is very arrogant and often rude, yet Campbell does well to make us like him all the same.

Neil Barclay as Alfred Doolittle provides much of the show’s comedy. Barclay makes Doolittle’s philosophy fascinating, showing what a scoundrel he is, while staying true to his own set of values. “Get Me to the Church on Time” led by Barclay and his sidekick Harry, played by Kyle Blair, is the liveliest choreography in the show.

Mark Urhe is charming as the lovesick Freddy, and offers the show’s best singing voice. In fact, pleased whispers went through the audience when he commenced “On the Street Where You Live”. Sharry Flett as Higgins’ mother is perfect. She puts Henry in his place to the audience’s satisfaction. Patrick Galligan does not give us a kind and benevolent Colonel Pickering. He seems confused and sometimes slow, and then suddenly animated, making the character inconsistent.

The costumes have a Caribbean influence; particularly, the scene at the Ascot has an infusion of colour. For the most part costumes are excellent. But it is puzzling that Higgins wears a smoking jacket type robe to the embassy ball, when everyone else is dressed appropriately. Also Higgins’ eyeglasses just aren’t quite right. The setting for My Fair Lady was long before Buddy Holly made black rims popular.

The set, with its birdcage theme, is beautiful. The home is gazebo-like with frames resembling cages and birds in cages.  In fact, Eliza’s father delivers her bird. On the screen behind the set, we see silhouettes of birds flying away.

The only thing the show lacks is chemistry between Eliza and Henry – nor is there a big romantic finish. But that is alright – The sudden falling in love in other productions always seems phoney. With their incompatible pasts, genuine dislike of each other and age difference, it’s unlikely that they would suddenly realize they are head over heels in love. This production ends with the two just looking at each as the curtain drops – no embrace or kiss. The audience is left wondering if a relationship might grow, or if they can now simply be friends – which would be just fine.

My Fair Lady continues at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-On-The-Lake, until October 30. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-511-7429 or check www.shawfest.com

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