Not your grandparents’ My Fair Lady, Olney Theatre Center presents a brilliant reimagining of this classic musical. With book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, it was adapted from the George Bernard Shaw play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture Pygmalion. Director Alan Souza makes subtle, yet significant, changes to bring this beloved favorite to a modern audience. Music Director Christopher Youstra and Choreographer Grady McLeod Bowman provide all the wonderful songs, dances, and comedy with creativity and renewed vigor. It’s been said that My Fair Lady is the “perfect musical” and popular wisdom admonishes us not to tamper with perfection. However, that admonishment does not apply here! Instead of the traditional Edwardian setting, Souza brings the action forward to 1921 – when women’s suffrage came to England – and adds some sexual tension to the mix, resulting in a marvelous blend of the new and the familiar.
My Fair Lady tells the story of a working-class flower girl in London, Eliza Doolittle, beautifully portrayed by Brittany Campbell. Eliza has great potential but needs help to unlock it. Enter Professor Henry Higgins, a stuffy phonetics teacher who deplores Eliza’s lack of education and refinement. The head-turningly handsome Danny Bernardy takes on the role with just the right amount of arrogance and disdain. The ultra-talented Todd Scofield delightfully plays Colonel Hugh Pickering, a language expert who has recently come from India to meet Professor Higgins. The two men enter into a wager that Higgins can transform Eliza into a “lady” in six months’ time and pass her off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball.
In Souza’s version, Higgins is very close in age to Eliza and the two immediately begin to flirt, but the flirtation is always beneath the surface. They work hard day and night but, through it all, Eliza maintains her pride and defiance while Higgins maintains his haughty misogyny. However, he shows a moment of sympathy for Eliza as he speaks of the beauty of the English language. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, but everything suddenly clicks for his pupil. The three rejoice and decide that Eliza is ready for a preliminary test at the annual Ascot Races.
Brittany Campbell as Eliza has a gorgeous, operatic voice and her singing is transcendent. The sweet and wistful, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” the defiant, “Just You Wait,” and the triumphant “I Could Have Danced All Night” are just a few examples of Campbell’s voice range and vocal dynamics.
While Danny Bernardy as Higgins could be said to have a less challenging singing assignment, his amazing talent is displayed in a number of ways. His brilliant knack for satire, his hilarious physical comedy, and his effortless acrobatic dancing are wonderfully evident in “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “Hymn to Him.”
Todd Scofield plays Pickering as a gentleman with a love of liquor and strawberry tarts and a sense of humor that sneaks up on the audience when we least expect it. At one point, Scofield literally stopped the show when Pickering was “infected” with Eliza’s Cockney accent and mispronounced his words.
Freddy Eynsford-Hill, played by Benjamin Lurye, is Eliza’s suitor. Freddye is a bit dim, yet somehow endearing, and Lurye cleverly captures those qualities. But Lurye’s shining moment comes when he sings the romantic ballad, “On the Street Where You Live.” His voice is clear and powerful, and the crescendos and decrescendos are thrilling! Several minutes of thunderous applause and shouts of “bravo” from a grateful audience were well-deserved.
Another standout performer was Valerie Leonard, who plays both Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, and his mother, Mrs. Higgins. Each role is quite different from the other, yet Leonard transitions seamlessly from one to the other and back again, several times. Mrs. Pearce is an efficient, no-nonsense servant, who nevertheless speaks firmly to Higgins when necessary, whereas Mrs. Higgins is a supercilious socialite who is embarrassed by her son but who takes a liking to Eliza and wants her to succeed.
Chris Genebach portrays Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, who is rough, crude, and totally devoid of morals, but who is also delightful. His dancing talent is front and center as he leads the ensemble in “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Speaking of the ensemble, their harmony and acrobatic dancing are superb! Conductor Andra Velis Simon leads an 11-piece orchestra through the iconic score and complements, but never overshadows, the onstage performers.
James Fouchard’s scenic design is breathtakingly simple. The basic set is an open platform to which set pieces and backdrops can be added and taken away. To depict Higgins’ office, Fouchard uses a backdrop of the phonetic symbols and adds a short staircase, stage left, for entrances and exits.
Costume Designer Pei Lee uses the 1921 setting to its best effect, with costumes that are not only appropriate for the characters, but which symbolize the theme of strong, liberated women. In one scene, Mrs. Higgins wears satin hostess pajamas and Eliza wears a sweater and slacks. In other words, women are “wearing the pants.”
Olney Theatre Center’s avant-garde production of My Fair Lady is still “the perfect musical” and is sure to delight audiences every bit as much as the original version. And, it must be said, My Fair Lady is “loverly.”
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.