Chicago Theater Review: MY FAIR LADY (Light Opera Works in Evanston)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 6, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

LOVERLY

The most insidiously satirical moment in Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore comes when a lowly sailor and his captain must instantly switch places when we learn that the latter was born nobly and not nastily. (Nautical expertise be damned; birth will out!) Thanks to George Bernard Shaw’s brilliant book, the same subversion occurs throughout Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 masterpiece: If Eliza, a common Covent Garden flower girl, can impersonate a duchess or be mistaken for a Hungarian countess at an embassy ball, just how secure is high society? When surface trumps substance, what can snobbery depend upon?

Elizabeth Telford as Eliza and Nicks Sandys as Henry Higgins.

Here Shaw’s satire is also, less convincingly, a love story: Audiences demand a happy ending, not just a parting of the ways between Eliza and Henry Higgins, the irascible phonetics expert who shapes this Galatea from a feisty guttersnipe to a quite useless lady. We delight in this psychologically masterful, socially skewering depiction of the unlikely, unforgettable romance between a professor who disdains class distinctions and a flower girl who wants to surmount them. Here a huge hunger for success—Henry Higgins to prove his theory about the arbitrariness of accents, Eliza Doolittle to better her birth—combines to forge a professional liaison that, slowly and sweetly, turns perfectly personal.

To love Broadway means cherishing its best works, the more urgently when the Great White Way is currently mired in an ebb tide of jukebox musicals and feel-good tripe fueled by synthetic power ballads. This masterwork not only profits from G.B. Shaw’s brilliant exposure of class snobbery (as exposed by a grubby peddler’s promotion to the highest circles of Edwardian London). The score is a triumph in every note, celebrating where Shaw is cerebrating.

Elizabeth Telford as Eliza (center) with company.

My Fair Lady is either too well known to need any rhetorical reprise or too rich for anything but the experience itself, as proven by the delight of first-time and veteran audience members dazzled by Shaw’s stagecraft, Alan Jay Lerner’s witty lyrics and such enchanting Frederick Loewe melodies as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face, ” and the pub-crawling rouser “I’m Getting Married in the Morning.”

Enthralling and captivating in every note and minute, Light Opera Works’ charm-laden revival casts a spell that not even an intermission should interrupt. It’s all superbly served by director Rudy Hogenmiller and choreographer Clayton Cross, who ensure that the flawless storytelling is indissolubly grafted to the matchless songs and exhilarating dances. Adam Veness’s supple sets deliver London at every level, perfectly illustrated by Theresa Ham’s fashionplate costumes, worthy successors to Cecil Beaton’s famous raiment.

Cary Lovett (center) as Alfred P. Doolittle with company.

Nick Sandys, artistic director at Remy Bumppo and an actor whose consummate intelligence shows in every syllable, has almost equaled Rex Harrison’s original creation. Wise, warm and winning, his could be the most surefire Henry Higgins since that standard-setter. Suavely eloquent, delicious in his deadpan quips, and perfectly controlled except when expertly combative, this Pygmalion sculpts Shaw’s lines into marble and vinegar. As Eliza, Elizabeth Telford feels as fresh a fair lady as if Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn never happened, her voice a joy whether raging in “Without You” or soaring in “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Despite a shaky British accent, Kirk Swenk all but “outs” Colonel Pickering (a confirmed old bachelor for very different reasons than Higgins).

More marvels: William Dwyer sings beautifully as upper-class twit Freddy, even though today he’d be arrested as a stalker holed up on “The Street Where You Live.” As a proud member of the “undeserving poor,” Cary Lovett’s rambunctious Alfred Doolittle does a lot. Anne Marie Lewis sports a perfect Scottish accent as Mrs. Pearce (any relation to Sherlock Holmes’ very similar housekeeper Mrs. Hudson?), and Joan McGrath is gentility incarnate as Henry’s very sensible, proto-feminist matriarch.

No question, My Fair Lady is a near perfect musical, here taken to the heights it pioneered 60 years ago. (As always with Light Opera Works the orchestra is faithful and sumptuous.) Shaw fans may prefer the more realistic finale of Pygmalion to L and L’s crowd-pleasing, sentimental happy ending (well, Eliza never was a feminist icon). But it’s the journey, not the destination, and these three hours at an Art Deco treasure on the North Shore make every minute golden.

William Dwyer as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and Elizabeth Telford as Eliza.

photos by Joshua Lott

My Fair Lady
Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street in Evanston
ends on June 12, 2016
for tickets, call 847.920.5360 or visit Light Opera Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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