Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan




Shaw's 50th season - it doesn't get much better than My Fair Lady!

My Fair Lady At Shaw

On opening night, with VIPS attired in tuxedos and fine dresses, it's simply money in the bank, a sure winner, a musical that everyone enjoys, a performance that generates a standing ovation and curtain call. It's My Fair Lady and Shaw has spared no expense. The costumes are spectacular; the sets are inspiring as are the special effects, particularly at the Ascot horse races. And the music is wonderful! The race horses on the track are cleverly superimposed upon the costumed actors (in a long line) who simulate the primary colours associated with colourful jerseys worn by jockeys. A neat theatrical touch that Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star didn't appreciate.

It's also the quintessential alchemical test. Can Henry Higgins, a haughty professor of phonetics, transform Eliza Doolittle, a lump of lower class coal, into a glittering diamond? The scenario in Shaw's 1912 Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts is mirrored in this musical, thanks to Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). And in this human engineering experiment, Director Molly Smith accomplishes near perfection with a star-stacked Shaw cast, already basking in frenzied hype about the Festival's 50th anniversary and a recent dramatic announcement of theatre expansion. Yes, the economic plot thickens in conservative Niagara on the Lake, where Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell, fresh from signing a new contract, ecstatically dictates in the program notes, "I wanted to open our season with a joyous, celebratory cork-popper of a show. What better choice than this brilliant blend of glorious music and Shaw's timeless tale?"

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Precisely, and her abundant talent accomplishes this goal as Mission Control Flight Captain Smith adeptly hones her two sharp stars - Deborah Hay (Eliza Doolittle) masterful in Born Yesterday and The Women, and Ben Campbell (Henry Higgins) equally brilliant in John Bull's Other Island and The Cherry Orchard, expertly craft a romantic comedy that engages them in the delightful task of satirizing the stiff British class system while plugging away for women's independence. Campbell and Hay are two actors at the top of their respective games, their career arcs ascending quickly like rockets, and they excel in this amusing process. Just watching their body language is a treat, full of nuance, and Hay, once on stage is simply a magnet for the eyes, even when silent.

Several songs, (to be endlessly hummed by patrons for the next six days) I Could Have Danced All Night, The Rain in Spain, On the Street Where You Live help us remember why this production was considered one of the best musicals of the 20th Century and one of the longest running shows in Broadway history at 2717 performances.

Outside London's Royal Opera House, Higgins and fellow speech expert, Colonel Pickering (Patrick Galligan), hear the terrible howls of a flower seller whose basket had been knocked to the ground. Horrified, Higgins launches into, "Oh, why can't the English learn to speak?" thus eclipsing Rex Harrison who spoke the words instead, choosing not to sing in the role.

Higgins wagers with Pickering that he can train the scruffy Cockney flower girl to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to assume the facade of gentility, and so the game is on, a science lab experiment that will inevitably produce robust nature versus nurture arguments.

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With no need for a GPS, professor Henry Higgins, speech scientist, can place any person by their accent to within two streets of where they were born. Impeccable speech is his secret to success. Think articulate Barack Obama versus the dim-witted verbiage emitted by an often perplexed, aw shucks cowboy rendition of George W. Bush. Think Washington's 1960's Camelot - sophisticated (yet lusty) John Fitzgerald Kennedy versus the unshaven, seedy Richard Nixon. And come to think of it, Higgins might well have trained all the "North American" call centres located in former British colonies such as India.

Eliza hears the proposition and the next day, arrives at Higgins' home and says she'll pay for lessons to learn proper English - English good enough so that she can work in a flower shop. She moves in and the transformation - both inside and out - begins.

The musical opened on Broadway in 1956 and played for six years. This is one of the Broadway shows that broke box office records. The original cast recording was the best-selling album in the U.S. in 1957 and 1958. This is the Shaw Festival's first production of this musical, directed by Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

Although Hay and Campbell are clearly the two principal stars, others excel in their minor roles especially fleet-footed Neil Barclay who undergoes a painful transformation of his own as Mr. Higgins, Eliza's father who frets about joining the moral middle class and getting to the church on time. Patrick Galligan is a competent Colonel Pickering, always concerned about Eliza's treatment in the hands of mad scientist, Higgins. Sharry Flett is solid as Higgins' mother as is Mark Uhre as Freddy, deeply infatuated with Eliza as he belts out a wonderful On the Street Where You Live.

The chorus and dancers revel in Ken MacDonald's superb London sets complete with birds flying around steel girders and a magical sky that exults in the stars and moon. Judith Bowden's costumes, particularly at Ascot, are stunningly beautiful. Kudos also to Daniel Pelzig (Choreography). The dancing and prancing is spirited and delightful to watch. Jock Munro (Lighting) expertly takes us from the dark underclass beneath a bridge to the dazzling lights and energy of Ascot. Adam Larsen (Production Designer), John Lott (Sound), Paul Sportelli and Ryan deSouza (Music) combine to help create a memorable production that will leave patrons smiling and singing all the way home.

My Fair Lady runs from April 13 to October 30 at the Festival Theatre. Running time is approximately 3 hours including one intermission. Further information: http://www.shawfest.com/

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