Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

may fair lady

My Fair Lady At The Shaw Festival

Coming off last year’s largest operating deficit in history, the Shaw Festival took a calculated risk by announcing that Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady would run straight through both the summer and winter seasons at the Festival Theatre. On the evidence of the sprightly performance I saw, the bet will pay off handsomely.

My Fair Lady, of course, is an adaptation of G.B. Shaw‘s Pygmalion, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. The show virtually defines the “golden age of the American musical” and it became the longest running Broadway musical of its time. It’s easy to see, or perhaps I should say hear why.

Not to diminish the contributions of a solid cast, but for me the great joy of this revival is the lush orchestrations, under the musical direction of Paul Sportelli, of some of the greatest show tunes ever written. I frequently had tears in my eyes. Kudos to the Shaw orchestra.

The story, for those who weren’t brought up properly, revolves around the efforts of Professor Henry Higgins (Tom Rooney), a phonetics whiz, to win a bet by transforming flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Kristi Frank), a Covent Garden “guttersnipe,” into a duchess, or at least the simulacrum of one. The first step is to get her to speak properly; learning upper class manners will take a bit more time.

There has been some silly talk lately about how My Fair Lady depicts an “abusive” relationship. But the rigorous training to which Higgins subjects Eliza is no more brutal than that practiced at most drama schools. For her part, Eliza, recognizing the opportunity Higgins’ project offers to improve her financial picture, is a willing if occasionally exhausted participant in the process.

One of the nicest parts of this My Fair Lady, thanks in large part to Rooney’s deft performance, is that Higgins emerges, not as a tyrannical bully, but as a rather innocent man-child who is merely lacking in the social graces most of us take for granted. This is a point brought home nicely by the performance of Sharry Flett as his mother. Today, we might be tempted to say Professor Higgins was “on the spectrum.”

Frank is an absolute delight as Eliza, feisty and combative with a survival instinct honed on the mean streets of London’s East End. And boy does she clean up nice!

Rooney of course is a master of any genre you can throw at him and he brings tremendous mastery to the role. As his self-imposed world view begins to crumble in the face of unfamiliar feelings he becomes truly moving. Eliza, too, becomes aware of feelings for which she cannot quite account. And this My Fair Lady wisely chooses to end on a note of uncertainty about what the future holds for its two protagonists.

There is sterling support from others in the company, most notably David Adams, as the lovably scurrilous Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father. David Alan Anderson is a nice foil for Rooney as Colonel Pickering, who graciously, even joyfully loses the bet.

I was puzzled by the co-director credit for Tim Carroll and Kimberley Rampersad. Given her musical theatre background and solid directing chops (Man and Superman at Shaw), Rampersad would have seemed the logical choice to direct and choreograph, a la Donna Feore over at Stratford. A “Co-Director’s Note” [sic] in the programme did little to dispel my confusion.

There was nothing confusing about Rampersad’s work as choreographer. She has wisely kept things simple, working as she is with performers who, for the most part, are actors first, singers second, and dancers a distant third. It works beautifully. The “Little Bit of Luck” number, featuring Alfred Doolittle and two of his drinking buddies, a reliable crowd-pleaser, is a perfect case in point.

The sets and costumes reflect what must have been considerable budgetary constraints, but Lorenzo Savoini (sets) and Joyce Padua (costumes) have made a virtue of necessity and I doubt anyone left the theatre feeling cheated in the visual splendor department.

Padua’s work in the Ascot scene was exemplary and I appreciated the slight nod to Cecil Beaton in Eliza’s outfit. Mikael Kangas handled the lighting chores and John Lott seems to have mastered the art if mic’ing a show with out making it sound mic’ed.

My Fair Lady continues at the Festival Theatre in Niagara on the Lake through December 22, 2024. From October 17, the role of Henry Higgins will be played by Allan Louis. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Shaw Festival website.

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