Monday, September 26, 2016

“Wouldn’t it be loverly” if all theatre was as enchanting as GLT’s MY FAIR LADY

MY FAIR LADY, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s award winning and universally praised musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, PYGMALION, centers on Eliza Doolittle, an uneducated Cockney flower girl who, in an attempt to “become a proper lady,” takes lessons from professor Henry Higgins, a self-centered egotist.

MY FAIR LADY has been called “the perfect musical.”  Perfect in form, musical style, and audience appeal.  It follows of the blueprint of customs defined by Jack Viertel in his “The Secret Life Of The American Musical:  How Broadway Shows Are Built.”

Traditional modern musicals, from the time of Rogers and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA on, have had a developmental format.  For example, those that are successful have an “I want song,” a tune that clearly tells us what is wanted by the lead character(s).  This is presented early in the script and sets the course of the play.  In MY FAIR LADY, Eliza sings,  “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air.”  Yes, and a little chocolate.  These “I want” desires set up the story line.

The scripts also include a “deal song,” a musical number which illustrates what will attempt to be accomplished and the steps to get to that desired conclusion.    In MFL Higgins will teach Eliza “proper” English, she will do her best to learn, and if he succeeds Higgins will win a bet with Colonel Pickering who believes he can’t accomplish the task of turning Eliza into a “proper lady.”  Without this tune and the “I want song,” there would be no plot.

Another format ingredient is that the “key to the romance,” if there is to be a romance.  This element centers on the inappropriateness of the couple.   In MY FAIR LADY, Higgins and Eliza are polar opposites.  How can any romance bud between them?  We are lead to watch and find out.

A musical’s structure also includes a “conditional song,” a tease as to whether a goal will be accomplished.   In this musical, after Higgins shows a bit of niceness after Eliza finally correctly speaks the difficult passage, “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plane,” she fantasizes the possibility of accomplishing her ultimate goal as she sings “I Could Have Danced All Night.”  Normally the conditional love song is about the feelings toward a person, but here, it is aimed at the possible success for her hard work.

An “understanding song” allows the audience to comprehend a character.  In MY FAIR LADY, Eliza has several of these numbers.  “Just You Wait,” is a comic tirade, which displays the lady’s temperament in which she imagines her tormentor, Higgins, with his head on a platter and facing a firing squad.  “Without You” is a defiant declaration of independence.  In the case of Higgins’, his “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” reveals his feelings for Eliza, and our gaining the understanding that under his harsh exterior, there may be a tender underbelly.  His “A Hymn to Him” illustrates his attitudes toward women.

 “A triumph song” helps move the plot along.  Without that song, the plot comes to a standstill.  ”She Did It” is proof that Eliza has become a “proper lady.”  The song also illustrates the pattern of two-act musicals to end the first segment with a conflict that has to be resolved.  As Eliza dances with dances with Zoltan Karpathy we wonder if she will convince him as to her authenticity as a true lady.  Unless the audience comes back for act two, they don’t know if she has achieved her goal.

In this Lerner and Loewe show, “She Did It” also is a “changing the game song,” a lyric of realization.  Eliza, who now realizes that she is no longer an ignorant flower girl, challenges Higgins with a series of questions: “What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for?  Where am I to go?  What am I to do?  What’s to become of me?”  She is changed.  Now, what is going to happen as a result of that realization?

“The end song” allows an important character to expose an emotional core that brings the show to its conclusion.  In MY FAIR LADY, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” allows Higgins to admit that he has feelings for another human being.  It is here that we realize his “love” or need for Eliza.  And, now the issue of the ending can be confronted.  Will she come back?  If so, under what conditions?  Or, will she use the skills she now has to move on?

The Great Lakes Theatre production, under the creative and focused direction of Victoria Bussert, who is celebrating her 30 th year with the company, is superb!

Bussert confronted the question of which of the various ending scenarios to use.  Will Eliza, now a “lady,” go forward with her life and accomplish her life goals?  Will she marry Freddie?  Will she come back to Higgins and tolerate his mode of control, because she “loves” and needs him?  Will she come back to Higgins on  her own terms.  (No spoiler alert here.  You’ll have to see the production to find the answer.)

Every aspect of the show is masterful.  From the cast to technical aspects to the musical sounds…there is a joining together of masters-at-work.

Jillian Kates transitions from flower girl to society lady with skill.  She alters accents and physical presence with ease.  She totally embraces the role of Eliza.   She is matched by Tom Ford as Henry Higgins.  Ford does not imitate Rex Harrison, who originally created the role.  He gives a nice twist to the role, being incorrigible while still being human. There is a faint bit of tenderheartedness which sneaks out in shy smiles and even a delightful laugh or two.  He sings instead of reciting the songs.  There is a nice chemistry between Kates and Ford.

Aled Davies is delightful as Colonel Pickering, as is M. A. Taylor as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s conniving father.  His versions of “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” were show-stopping delights.

Colton Ryan added an endearing quality to Freddy Eysford-Hill, who is traditionally played as a colorless mamma’s boy.  Ryan presented a believable love-struck feel to the role.  His unique interpretation of “On the Street Where You Live” was endearing.

Strong performances were also given by Jodi Dominick (Mrs. Pearce), Laura Perrotta (Mrs. Higgins), and Lynn Robert Berg (Zoltan Karpathy).

Choreographer Gregory Daniels created visually pleasing and appropriate dance numbers that were well executed.  Joel Mercier’s song interpretations were nicely conceived and his orchestra performed well, supporting rather than over-powering the singers.

Jeff Herrmann’s scenic designs were nicely done.  There was adequate space for crowd scenes, dancing and ease of set changes.  The color tones worked perfectly with the costumes.

Costumer Charlotte M. Yetman outdid herself on this show.  The costumes were era correct, the women’s  millinery and gowns were compelling, especially in the Ascot scene.  It was nice to see a different approach…using light mauves and grays rather than the stereotypical black and white.  Paul Miller’s lighting added the right gel tones to accent the sets and the costumes.
Capsule judgement:  Victoria Bussert has staged a MY FAIR LADY that is as close to perfect as any musical can be. Everything about the production screams, “This is a special evening of theatre that has to be seen!”  If you only see one theatrical production this season, this is the show!  Bravo!!!

MY FAIR LADY runs through October 29, 2016  at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or