Chicago Theatre Review
Oh, So Loverly
My Fair Lady – Light Opera Works
Any production of Lerner and Loewe’s classic is always a treat. It’s a textbook example of the perfect book musical, based upon George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and featuring a sumptuous score that includes beautiful ballads (“On the Street Where You Live”), joyful music hall melodies (“With a Little Bit of Luck”) and insightful character recitatives (“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”), all of which have become standards. It’s a throwback to a glorious time when musicals were fun, stylish and told a compelling story featuring songs the audience could leave the theatre humming. Light Opera Works originally presented this show in 2009, but does this current production measure up?
Indeed it does! To begin with, for theatre aficionados it’s always exciting to see how faithful a Light Opera Works production will remain to the original, and in this respect the show succeeds magnificently. Rudy Hogenmiller does a spectacular job of adapting the splendor of the Lerner and Loewe classic to the Cahn Auditorium stage. First, and foremost, Roger L. Bingaman’s majestic 28-piece orchestra gloriously accompanies the actor/singers and dancers, while coaxing every subtle nuance from Frederick Loewe’s mellifluous score. In addition, Hogenmiller stages his production with grace and focus, demanding nothing less than eloquence and honesty from his fine actors. Watching Eliza, for instance, as she realizes at one point during “The Rain in Spain” that she’s falling in love with Higgins is one of the many sublime moments of this production. We empathize with the young lady as she stands in the shadows, watching Pickering, Higgins and his household staff gloating over the success at the ball. However, Hogenmiller has subtly directed the audience’s attention to Eliza, sadly ignored even though she was the person who actually made the triumph possible. There are many of these moments throughout this finely directed production.
The musical ebbs and flows exquisitely, thanks to some very stylish and spirited choreography by Clayton Cross. His music hall style production numbers for Doolittle and his drinking buddies, particularly “With a Little Bit of Luck,” contrasts beautifully with Cross’ elegant “Embassy Waltz.” There’s a grand and stylized “Ascot Gavotte,” as well as the simplicity of movement found in “The Servants’ Chorus.” Every choreographed moment is Oh, so Loverly, thanks to this talented choreographer. Superbly sung, acted and danced, this musical is just as polished and perfect as one of the many Broadway, West End or professional touring revivals.
Technically the production sings, as well. Theresa Ham has outdone herself, providing a dazzling array of hundreds of costumes, obviously inspired by Cecil Beaton’s award-winning Edwardian period pieces. Adam Veness has designed a beautiful, finely detailed, flawlessly versatile set that’s stunning, cultured and clever. Andrew Meyers makes certain that everything and everyone is easily visible with his excellent lighting design. He’s captured the variations in illumination, from a rainy evening outside Covent Garden to the brilliance of the Embassy Ball; from a sunny afternoon at the Ascot to the early morning radiance of “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Mr. Meyers’ illumination is flawless.
Shaw wrote an unconventional love story between two headstrong people. Professor Henry Higgins promises Eliza Doolittle that she would be able to sell flowers in a shop instead of on the streets if she learned to speak proper English. Higgins succeeds and passes her off as royalty at the Embassy Ball, but between English lessons Eliza and Henry fall in love. Being the staunchly confirmed bachelor that he is, however, Higgins denies to himself how he feels.
Elizabeth Telford’s classy, sassy Eliza is the essence of this musical. In her we see a working class caterpillar gradually evolving into a beautiful butterfly. Ms. Telford brings elegance, energy and perfect pitch to her songs, a spot-on command of two different British dialects to her words and an expressive face says everything unspoken. Some of her finest moments include a winsome, reflective “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” a girlishly jubilant “I Could’ve Danced All Night” and fiery frustration in her 11th hour number, “Show Me.” But perhaps Ms. Telford’s finest moment comes as she descends the spiral staircase in Higgins’ study, looking radiant in her Embassy Ballgown. One of the finest qualities in Elizabeth Telford’s portrayal is her truthfulness. Her Eliza grows from a self-doubting Cockney flower girl into a strongly independent, admirable young woman.
Nick Sandys’ pompous Henry Higgins is strong, silver-tongued and self-assured at the beginning of the play, very much the character that G.B. Shaw created in “Pygmalion.” But, by the end of the musical, in Mr. Sandys’ capable hands, we observe a man who’s learned from his pupil and acquired some humility. He’s a scholar who finally recognizes that he’s found his equal in a woman, Eliza Doolittle. At first audiences may question the chemistry that eventually draws these two stubborn adversaries together, but it’s right there from the beginning. The flower simply needs some time to bloom. Near the musical’s finale, Eliza and Henry finally confront each other as equals in his mother’s garden. There Sandys skillfully shows us what beats inside this chauvinistic man. We see Higgins’ hidden vulnerability as he sensitively admits that he’s “Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” As a result, this final scene is a perfectly acted conclusion to Shaw’s story of the creator who falls in love his creation.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Kirk Swenk’s fussy, veddy British and dryly humorous Colonel Pickering is perfection, as is Joan McGrath’s delightfully droll, witty, no-nonsense Mrs. Higgins. Boyishly handsome William Dwyer as Freddy fills the stage with his gorgeous rendition of “On the Street Where You Live,” and larger-than-life Cary Lovett reprises his role from the 2009 production as a wily, rascally Alfred P. Doolittle. Anne Marie Lewis provides a calm humanity to both her strong, Scottish-born housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, while Nic Fantl is arrogant and smarmy as Higgins’ Hungarian adversary, Zolton Karpathy. And every single member of Hogenmiller’s talented 18-member ensemble brings harmonious, sweet-sounding, accomplished voices to the show. Even more impressive is each company member’s strong dance ability.
Unfortunately running for a limited two-week run, this beautiful production has so much to offer, both musically and dramatically. Rudy Hogenmiller has created an enchanting evening of theatre, very true to original 1956 Broadway production, that will transport audiences to the elegance and innocence of Edwardian England. As gorgeous-sounding as Lerner and Loewe’s Tony Award-winning musical score is, it’s Shaw’s original story that truly shines forth. Light Opera Works’ new production is guaranteed to make theatergoers want to “dance all night.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 4-12 by Light Opera Works (to be renamed Musical Theatre Works in 2017) at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-920-5360 or by going to www.LightOperaWorks.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com