Entertainment » Theatre

My Fair Lady

by Kilian Melloy
Sunday Sep 13, 2015
Jennifer Ellis and Christopher Chew in 'My Fair Lady,' continuing through Oct. 11 at the Lyric Stage
Jennifer Ellis and Christopher Chew in 'My Fair Lady,' continuing through Oct. 11 at the Lyric Stage  (Source:Mark S. Howard)

When it comes to charming musicals that have contributed songs to the popular lexicon, "My Fair Lady" is right up there. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston does the play proud with a lavish production.

Surely you know the story of Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins? It's the original "Pretty Woman," right down to her earthy, and yet endearing, outburst at an equine sporting event attended by the chi-chi set. (It's polo in "Pretty Woman," a horse race here.) The Professor (Christopher Chew) encounters Eliza (Jennifer Ellis) on the streets of London, where she barely makes a living selling flowers. Higgins is an expert in dialects, and fairly clinical about his observations, but Eliza's broad, down-market accent and garrulous manner of speech is too much even for him; her go-to expression is "Go on!" but it comes out sounding like "Goahhn!" It's a state of affairs the professor, in his snobbery, can't help mocking.

But there's someone else of note on the street just then -- Col. Pickering (Remo Airaldi), a linguist who has made a study of dialects in India. The men have long wanted to make one anothers' acquaintances, and once they do, they hustle off in a whirl of excited chatter and quickly forget about Eliza.


Christopher Chew and Remo Airaldi  (Source:Mark S. Howard)

Eliza, though, doesn't forget about them. Her interest has been piqued by Higgins' expansive boast that he could transform her speech and manner in six months so that he could present her at a fancy ball and no one would ever guess her humble origins. When Eliza shows up at Higgins' residence -- much to the scandal of Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (Cheryl McMahon) -- and offers to pay Higgins for lesson in how to "talk proper" so that she might be able to get work at an upscale flower shop, Higgins and Pickering instantly take her under their collective wing. Before long, Eliza is wearing a better cut of clothing and struggling to acquire a better class of enunciation.

This is a love story, of course; even as Pickering, Pearce, and Higgins' mother, Mrs. Higgins (Beth Gotha) look on in various states of amusement, Higgins -- who vows repeatedly, and via big musical numbers, to be the sort of confirmed bachelor who'd be more interested in girls if they could only be more like boys -- becomes smitten despite himself.

The play's subtext of sexual politics is never far from the surface, and when it peeks out it's always through a gloss of humor even though some of what's being hinted about the place of women relative to men in turn-of-the-20th-century England is nothing short of appalling. (This production is set in the 1930s, but there's no escaping the Edwardian atmosphere that permeates the source material.) When Eliza's drunkard father scrapes up enough outrage to appear at Higgins' abode, it's with pecuniary, rather than moral, interests; he "sells" Eliza to the professor for five pounds. At various junctures, Higgins -- Pickering, too, though he is quite a bit less unconcerned about these things -- manages to come up with off-the-cuff characterizations about what the two men are up to with Eliza that sound frankly alarming. (Mrs. Higgins chides her son for playing with a "living doll.")

But the play does carry a moral sting, and cleverly upends the received wisdom about just who is whose moral superior in the rigidly stratified social food chain. At the end of the experiment, having been transformed into a lady, it's Eliza who hits several nails on the head in a single go when she points out to Henry that when she was selling flowers on the streets, she was not also selling her body; now, she laments, having been prettified, cosseted, and polished, she's much more socially acceptable -- and much less able to provide for herself by doing anything apart from selling herself. Given the time in which the play is set, marriage is the obvious solution, and there's a young suitor standing by in the person of Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jared Troilo). But will the clueless professor manage to pry his foot out his mouth and transcend his chauvenism long enough to court her? And even if he does, will Eliza's pride come to the fore and cause her to shun him?


Jared Troilo and Jennifer Ellis  (Source:Mark S. Howard)

Much of the comedy's sparkle comes right from the talents of the cast. Christopher Chew plays Higgins a little broadly, reminding one here and there of English comedians like Steven Coogan (and, at fleeting moments, John Cleese). Remo Airaldi has a good part in Pickering, but one could wish for his role to have been larger. Cheryl McMahon nearly steals her scenes from Chew (who steals them right back), and Beth Gotha, though making only a few brief appearances, lights up the stage. Jared Troilo does love-sick well, and sings even better; an energetic ensemble round things out with gleeful song and dance, tackling David Connolly's choreography with what looks like true enjoyment.

But the standout and unquestionable star of the show is Jennifer Ellis, whose singing is terrific and whose impeccable performance effortlessly conveys Eliza's street smarts, her iron will, her feisty nature, and her eventual mastery of social graces. (She's hilarious and utterly convincing in a scene in which Eliza confounds an upper-class audience with a mixture of coarse anecdote, lower-class slang, and polished accent.)

Ellis thoroughly embodies Eliza as tough, vivacious street peddler, only to then portray the newly genteel Eliza with a demeanor that loses none of her independent quality and yet still incorporates finishing-school manners that are as smart and elegant as the dresses with which costumer Gail Astrid Buckley attires her and the other women in the cast. (The men are every bit as well appointed, though -- here as in life -- the male fashion palette is, in contrast to the splendor of the women's wardrobe, much constrained.)

The show's live music is provided by only three musicians who make their sound rich enough to have come from an orchestra twice as large. The songs are all here, from "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" to "I could Have Danced All Night" to "On the Street Where You Live," "Get Me to the Church On Time," and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." Karen Perlow's lighting gently (and sometimes vividly) spotlights the performers as they deliver their signature songs, and bathes a black background silhouette of the London skyline with vivid hues. Meanwhile, Janie E. Howland's slightly deco set design holds on to old-school opulence while tipping a hat to impending modernism (though the use of screens emblazoned with symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet might be a trifle too literal).

Everything about the production fits together so beautifully you'll feel like you're watching something directed by Scott Edmiston... which is, in fact, entirely the case. In the program notes, Edmiston cops to looking to the film "Pygmalion," from 1938, as a stylistic and period reference, and there's more than a trace of opulent silver screen atmosphere about the result. This is a show that's going to please crowds, even as it makes its mark artistically on the city's theater scene for the upcoming season, and perhaps beyond.


"My Fair Lady" continues through Oct. 11 a the Lyric Stage. For tickets and more information, please go to www.lyricstage.com


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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