Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady may be British in setting and subject matter but it is one of the greatest American musicals to emerge from the Golden Age of the 1950s and 60s. Good productions make for ideal first-time-at-the-theatre experiences and provide opportunities for fulfilling part of the “must-see” list of anyone interested in theatre. Excellent productions provide audience members who have seen a previous production (and even those who have seen many previous productions) with the pleasures that derive from a director’s particular touch.
Cygnet’s current revival falls into the excellent category, not just for those pleasures but for a cast with the talent and flexibility to pull them off.
Director Sean Murray mostly plays the script as written and keeps the pace lively, a wise choice for a show that runs almost three hours (a long first act where lots happens gives way to much shorter Act 2 where the characters’ inner lives are more on display). His innovation is to cut the number of performers to ten, along with a six-piece orchestra supervised by Music Director Patrick Marion. As there were 47 cast members in the original Broadway production, making do with ten requires special talents from each cast member, as well as some creative vocal arrangements, presumably by Mr. Marion.
Fortunately, San Diego has a cadre of musical performers who are up to the task, including two recent winners of Craig Noel Awards for Actor of the Year: Tom Stephenson, who plays a droll Colonel Pickering, and Linda Libby, whose roles include the juicy part of Mrs. Higgins (so juicy, in fact, that Ms. Libby drew exit applause twice from the opening night audience).
Also in the cast is local favorite Ron Choularton as Alfred P. Doolittle, whose British accent is not only the real deal but whose appreciation of the British Music Hall tradition stands him in good stead for his two production numbers (both of which feature an audience sing-along, a tradition of the genre). And, David Brannen’s choreography gets its chance to shine in these numbers, one in each act.
The others in the ensemble perform their specialties with equal quality. Katie Whalley Banville dances like a dream, Charles Evans, Jr., creates an ideally moony Freddy Einsford-Hill, and Debra Wanger makes Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, less dowdy than is often the case. Bryan Banville anchors the choral parts ably, and Ralph Johnson pops up whenever you need him.
As there were 47 cast members in the original Broadway production, making do with ten requires special talents from each cast member.
Even with outstanding support, though, the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s story of the transformation of a flower girl into a lady by a “confirmed old bachelor” linguist makes less than good sense without solid leading players. While it is dangerous for the director to play the lead as well, in this case any worries can be put aside. Mr. Murray has portrayed Henry Higgins on more than one occasion, and this time he gives a performance that combines an insouciant ease with a confidence that inspires other cast members to play to his level. Allison Spratt Pearce doesn’t generate quite the same energy level as flower-seller cum lady Eliza Doolittle, but she never oversells Eliza, either. And, she sings the role beautifully. I’d guess that her performance will grow and mature as the show runs (through April 26).
Cygnet’s resident artists (set designer Andrew Hull, lighting designer Chris Rynne, and sound designer Matt Lescault-Wood) make their usual magic, while costume designer Jeanne Reith and Wig and Makeup Designer Peter Herman make a special kind of magic by creating a variety of different looks for both leads and ensemble (and making certain that the many costume, wig and make-up changes can be executed in a timely manner).
Never seen My Fair Lady before? Cygnet’s production will show you why it’s a classic. Seen it many times? You’ll appreciate the detail in the direction and the cast’s ability to play off of each other. In either event, you’ll be happily entertained.