She’s 60-years-old this spring, but “My Fair Lady” is as witty and captivating as she ever was. Messrs. Lerner and Loewe’s undisputed greatest work could retire on its heap of Tonys and “Bests” and retain its crown, yet remains one of the most popular revived musicals of all time.
Director Patrick A’Hearn has chosen well, mounting a graceful and nimbly paced production to close out Riverside’s 18th season. Though longer-than-average (nearly three hours), care has been taken to keep the story moving forward, driven by the songs for which it is so famous.
Most musicals are lucky to have two or three songs that stand on their own in popularity, but MFL has at least a dozen. Who can forget “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Just You Wait, ‘enry ‘iggins,” “The Rain in Spain,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” Few musicals have generated so many hit songs, and when the show opened in 1956, Columbia Records made a fortune.
Surely by now everyone knows the story grafted from Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” itself inspired by the Greek legend of the sculptor who fell in love with his own creation. It’s the musical version, however, that has assured the story’s immortality. ‘Grubby little cabbage’ of a Cockney flower seller meets irritable Professor of Linguistics and is forever changed when he takes a bet with his friend and makes a project of turning her into a lady.
Though supported by a large cast, the three principals, Henry Higgins, Eliza Doolittle, and Col. Pickering, make or break the show. Quinn Vogt-Welch, unforgettable as Christine in “Phantom” and Maria in “West Side Story,” returns in the role of Eliza Doolittle. Her exquisite soprano and delicate beauty make her ideal for the transition from gutter to palace. Her performance of “Just You Wait” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” are exceptional in a list of stand-outs.
As her teacher and tormentor, Henry Higgins (Thomas Simpson) is relentless. Pedantic, grumpy, solitary, and utterly intolerant of the misuse of the English language (what’s not to love?) he will turn her into a “lady” if it kills them both. Mr. Simpson is an excellent physical type for this role and roars with the best of them, but occasionally exaggerates with unnecessarily strenuous syllables and mannerisms. Dialing back on the anger and volume might, ironically, make this character more menacing. Loved him in “I’m an Ordinary Man” and its opposite, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.”
Col. Pickering (Bob Beard), author of the wager, is an essential foil to Higgins with his patience and kindness to the poor hectored Eliza. Mr. Beard is another score, having the natural bearing and affect of the true gentleman. I regretted only that the “Hymn to Him” (a.k.a. “Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?) sung by Higgins to Pickering, the driest, funniest song in the list, was cut short for time’s sake.
A large, strong ensemble fills out the choral scenes from buskers of the gutters to upper crusts of Ascot. Choreographer Shawna Walker-Hallinan uses them to advantage, creating rowdy, festive capers for the one and decorous, stiff-necked movements for the other. Bursting forth in all his swashbuckling degeneracy is Eliza’s father, the incorrigible Alfred P. Doolittle in a flamboyant performance by Doug Schneider. His insouciance makes a virtue of prodigal habits where, in an amusing side plot, he accidentally falls into middle class respectability. Marriage yawns before him and the rollicking “Get Me To the Church On Time” is its theme.
Fleshing out a necessary sub-plot is Calvin Malone as the besotted Freddy, a young gentleman who barely notices the flower-selling Eliza but falls madly for the created lady Eliza. “On the Street Where You Live” is just the showcase for his gorgeous tenor.
Those who love costuming must love this show, and Gaye Law and Jimm Halliday have taken it to its natural limits – particularly in the Ascot scene with the stunning black and white lines of genteel fashion – call it “extreme vogue” – and faultless grey morning suits and top hats for the gents. Elsewhere, costumes ably reflect time, place, and strata on the social scale.
Sound was occasionally problematic with the live orchestra and the singers’ mics competing for dominance. More problematic was the extra fast attempted Cockney speech at the beginning where some really good lines got lost. Balance improved later in the show.
Adam Koch’s set allows for swift changes and area staging within one very elegant design of black and white diamond floor, removable sweeping staircase, and soaring frosted glass windows in the backdrop. The effect of lightness and airiness supports the overall positive loveliness and humor of “My Fair Lady.”
This is another in a series of shows selling out at Riverside. With a phone call and “a little bit of luck” you won’t miss this classic.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “My Fair Lady”
Where: Riverside Dinner Theatre, Riverside Pkwy., Fredericksburg, Va.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com
Playing through May 8