My Fair Lady
Theatre Cedar Rapids — through Oct. 6; tickets $25-40
Some musicals you go to every time they come around. They are the classics that never disappoint. My Fair Lady, directed at TCR by Angie Toomsen with music direction by Cameron Sullenberger, is no exception. The entire ensemble from cast to musicians to techies are to be commended on an outstanding performance.
Written in 1956 (book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe), the enduring topics of classism, sexism, transformation and love were brought to life by a wonderful ensemble creating captivating characters. From the moment she utters her first syllable, Angela Billman is luminous in the role of Eliza Doolittle. She brings the character completely to life, whether selling flowers on the street or enchanting everyone she meets at the grand ball. As a lifelong theater goer, I am accustomed to viewing the whole scene rather than focusing on one character; however, whenever Billman was on stage, I found my eyes following her and my ears awaiting her next line or song.
Aaron Murphy became the redoubtable Henry Higgins in a performance that was equally mesmerizing. Billman and Murphy interacted so genuinely that the audience couldn’t help but be immediately entranced by their relationship. Completing the main trio was Greg Smith as Colonel Pickering, who sets the plot in motion by accepting Higgins’ bet that he can improve Eliza’s manners and speech so as to pass her off as a duchess in six months’ time. Smith is the gentleman foil to Murphy’s demanding professor; the two complement each other throughout the show. Rounding out the household characters is Amy Blades as Mrs. Pearce, and she is outstanding in this role. Blades balances the solemnity of a head housekeeper with the compassion of a governess and, in doing so, becomes a voice of reason for everyone involved.
Sullenberger’s musical direction was on point; one might expect trips and falls in an ambitious musical, especially on opening night, but that was not the case. Well-tuned vocal performance and the orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Schmidt, filled the theater throughout the evening. S. Benjamin Farrar’s set and lighting design had columns turning into bookcases and backdrops transforming London streets to private gardens to Higgins’ study to Ascot Racecourse.
One key technical aspect of My Fair Lady is the accents that the performers must adopt and maintain throughout the performance. The socio-economic differences between the commoners and gentlepeople are made apparent through accents. Although there were a few lines and one song overshadowed by an accent trying too hard, it would be fair to chalk that up to opening night, because by the middle of the first act, everyone had settled into their speech patterns. Billman’s accent consistently highlighted her character’s ongoing transformation throughout the play. It’s one thing to affect an accent, and quite another to deliver lines and sing clearly with one, and the entire ensemble rises to the occasion in this production.
Three often overlooked characters in this show are Freddy, Mrs. Higgins and Alfred P. Doolittle. Years ago, when I first saw this play, I didn’t see the point of Freddy at all. In this production, Sage Spiker not only embodies the lovelorn Freddy, I found myself looking forward to his reprise in the second act. Spiker has the kind of smooth, melodious voice that one wants to hear again and again. Alfred P. Doolittle (Brett Borden) is another character I haven’t always appreciated, but Borden brings a sense of lightness and humor to the stage. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but the audience seemed especially to enjoy Mrs. Higgins (Cherryl Moon Thomason) when she scolded Henry and supported Eliza, going so far as the applaud her lines several times.
The ensemble is at once street vendors, Ascot patrons and household staff. They sing, change costumes, dance, change costumes, mill about, change costumes — this is a hard-working group throughout the play. Indeed, it is their presence that truly helps transport the audience to Edwardian London. Erin Helm has choreographed this group throughout a wide variety of dance numbers, from the precise Ascot movements to the raucous “Get Me to the Church on Time.” If parts of the dances were occasionally common, they were enthusiastically executed throughout the show. Joni Sackett’s colorful and varied costume design serves to brilliantly transform this group time and again. From rags to feathers to suits to maid’s costumes, Sackett’s designs add depth of character to the ensemble as well as the main players.
I have seen several stagings of this musical, and the way Toomsen staged the close of the show was particularly tender. At the end of the night, the audience was on its feet for a production that offers something for everyone: music, dance, humor and a happy ending. This is, indeed, a production you don’t want to miss.