If you were to open a dictionary―they still have those?―and look up the word “musical,” a picture of My Fair Lady, currently showing at Irving’s Lyric Stage, would appear next to the definition. Called the perfect musical by some, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion contains perhaps the densest collection of recognizable tunes of any musical ever written.
As musical numbers often serve as the selling point for an audience, My Fair Lady has that base covered in spades.
However, as the show is such a classic, it is also an easy victim of laziness. Knowing audience members will love the performance as long as the musical numbers are delivered adequately, it can lull a theater company into a state of complacency; a tragedy that happens most often with the classic stalwarts, as familiarity can lead to lackluster performances.
It is for this reason specifically that Lyric’s production is a breath of fresh air.
Lyric’s staging of this classic, directed and choreographed by Len Pfluger, is a heartfelt effort illuminated by excellent design and dedicated performances.
Eliza Doolittle (Kimberly Whalen) is a cockney flower peddler who has a fortuitous, though not at the time, run in with Colonel Pickering (Gary Taggart) and venerable linguist Henry Higgins (J. Brent Alford) outside of the opera house.
Higgins and Pickering, who both study language and phonetics, realize they had been looking for each other and initiate a self-congratulatory conversation of their studies. Higgins eventually boasts that he could take the cockney speaking Eliza and pass her off as a lady in six months.
Back at Higgins’ house, which is an impressive set piece to rival any major production in the country, Eliza surprises the two by showing up uninvited and asking for the lessons Higgins had boasted about earlier.
He accepts and so begins a tumultuous and highly tense relationship punctuated by the supporting performances of Sonny Franks as Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle, Noelle Stanley as the housemaid Mrs. Pearce and Juli Erickson as the Higgins’ family matriarch.
Whalen plays an engaging Eliza, effectively garnering sympathy from the audience and finding a healthy balance between the emotional and comical demands of such a role. Her actions and gestures are never over the top, instead accomplishing the rare feat of taking intended laugh lines in the story and evoking genuine laughter as opposed to a more “laugh at the silliness of it all” response.
Alford’s Higgins is played with a seemingly over-concentration on being snooty and despicable, often showing Eliza little to no respect, merely treating her as an experiment of sorts. However, the denouement of the story exposes the act as a front, and Alford gives the audience a glimpse of a truly magnificent character that will warm the heart and tug at the tear ducts.
Taggart’s Pickering is a delightful presence as he takes the epitome of a supporting character and gives him a soul and identity. For a role that in many ways is simply written to help move the plot forward, Taggart breathes life into it and makes the Colonel’s presences a balancing force, essentially acting as the angel on Higgins’ shoulder.
The show stealer, though, is Sonny Franks as Eliza’s drunkard father, Alfie. A comic relief role if there ever was one, Franks takes it by the reins and rides it to victory. Aided by getting two of the show’s most memorable and fun songs, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” Franks turns a drunk, absentee father into a humorous and sympathetic character who gives the audience plenty to smile about. Unabashedly, he may be the best part of the entire show.
The production values here are tantamount to the best of touring shows. The sets, designed by Kenneth Foy, are impressive and imaginative. Likewise, costume coordinator Drenda Lewis makes excellent use of color throughout, especially during the London street scenes and the races at Ascot.
This production of My Fair Lady also features a 38-piece orchestra, conducted by music director Jay Dias, that adds further dimension to the sheer opulence of the show. Featuring more musicians than the original Broadway production, the orchestra adds a richness and texture to the proceedings that cannot be matched in other productions―at least not for a classic musical written to be performed by a full collection of musicians.
Finally, director Pfluger has created a brilliant symphony, synchronizing the various elements of the production with outstanding staging and choreography that all at once appears seamless and intricately planned and executed. Coordinating such a large production filled with so many talented people is a tall order for anyone, and Pfluger excels admirably, delivering what must be one of the finer productions of this classic ever staged.
Getting people to see classic musicals usually isn’t a difficult task. That’s why they’re classics. However, Lyric Stage’s production of the ultimate classic, My Fair Lady, is a definite must-see.
If you’ve ever wanted a show by which to compare all other grandly staged musicals, this is the one.