Meeting an old friend at the Bend
My Fair Lady
Book by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Performed by Roger Dunn and Lynne Griffin
Directed by Susan Ferley
Choreographed by Gino Berti
Drayton Entertainment Production
Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend
June 3 to June 21, 2008
Live! On Stage!
Review by Mary Alderson
Summer’s officially arrived with the season opener at Grand Bend’s Huron Country Playhouse. It’s like meeting an old friend back at the ‘Bend – the Playhouse has dusted off the cobwebs, and sure enough, over 600 of your good friends are there.
Seeing My Fair Lady in Grand Bend is like catching up with an old friend, too. The Lerner and Loewe musical first appeared on Broadway in 1956 and was made into a movie in1964. It played at Huron Country Playhouse in the mid-90s and has been on the Festival Stage in Stratford in recent years, too.
My Fair Lady is the ever-popular story of a Cockney girl selling flowers on the streets of London about 100 years ago. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, My Fair Lady tells how linguistic Professor Henry Higgins accepts a challenge from his colleague Colonel Pickering to rid the flower girl of her Cockney accent and make her speak like a true English lady. Eliza Doolittle becomes the guinea pig in their experiment – they must correct her enunciation and grammar, teach her etiquette, and pass her off as a lady at the upcoming Embassy ball.
In the meantime, Eliza’s unemployed, alcoholic father shows up, wanting to be paid for whatever they are doing to her. Higgins is a male chauvinist, treating Eliza as chattel. Fortunately, Pickering is kinder and models better behaviour for her. And somehow, in all of this, the professor and the project end up happily ever after.
Douglas E. Hughes is excellent as Professor Henry Higgins. He plays the role with just the right amount of attitude. Although arrogant, abrupt and too busy for niceties, we can still see the good slowly emerge. Unless this difficult role is handled properly, Higgins could become very dislikeable. While Hughes shows us Higgins’s despicable side, like his mother, we know that he’s still a decent person. Hughes handles the songs like “Why Can’t the English?” “The Rain in Spain,” and “A Hymn to Him” expertly.
Mairi Babb is back at the Playhouse as Eliza Doolittle this time – she was Laurey in Oklahoma! two years ago. This role gives her greater opportunity to show her comedic talent. She is brilliant in the hilarious scene where Higgins and Pickering take Eliza to the Ascot Races to test her ability to mingle with the upper class. But while her enunciation is impeccable, she is still using street slang. Babb pulls it off delightfully, keeping a stiff upper lip while describing her aunt’s death. Then she slips back into her Cockney when she yells at her horse to “move your bloomin’ arse!” While Babb’s aptitude for comedy is impressive and her singing voice above average, sometimes her animation slows while she was singing. The song “I Could Have Danced All Night” is a pivotal moment in the story – she needs to completely convince the audience that she has fallen in love with this somewhat dislikeable man, and I don’t think she demonstrated that passion. My Fair Lady is a long show with many songs, and it’s important to keep energy up during the musical numbers.
Keith Dinicol, with many years experience at the Stratford Festival, is perfect as Colonel Pickering. He dithers just enough to be funny without losing credibility. He and Hughes have excellent rapport, playing the two characters off each other.
Gail Hakala plays the staid and proper Mrs. Pearce flawlessly, and Lorraine Foreman is charming as the long-suffering Mrs. Higgins, refusing to be embarrassed by her rude son. Graham Coffeng as the besotted Freddy Enysford-Hill gives an enjoyable rendition of “On The Street Where You Live”.
Barrie Wood is disappointing as Alfred P. Doolittle. This character has some of the funniest lines in the show, but the humour did not come across. Without a consistent Cockney accent these lines fall flat. Wood does, however, show some excellent dancing, along with the company, in “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
The rest of the cast very capably fills numerous roles from street urchins to servants to glitterati at the ball. Excellent costumes and quick changes keep the audience enthralled. The sets are well done, from the inside of Higgins’ library, to the outside of Wimpole Street, from the Ballroom to Mrs. Higgins’ garden. Some of the changes were a little slow on opening night, but they will become faster.
In its treatment of Eliza, My Fair Lady probably reflects more about the era in which it was written, rather than the time it represents. In the1950s, every girl’s goal was to get a husband, and suddenly that becomes Eliza’s goal, even though her original intention was to get a job in a flower shop. There is also too much talk of hitting, striking and even using a belt on Eliza, which should make today’s audience very uncomfortable. Thankfully, at the end of this production, Eliza didn’t stoop to put the slippers on Henry’s feet. Director Susan Ferley has Eliza perch on the edge of the desk next to Henry, giving him a hip bump – an excellent show of equality – and a good ending to a very good production.
My Fair Lady continues with eight shows a week until June 21 at Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend. Tickets are available at the Huron Country Playhouse box office at (519) 238-6000, Drayton Entertainment at 1-888-449-4463, or check out http://www.draytonentertainment.com
Mary Alderson offers her view of area theatre in this column on a regular basis. As well as being a fan of live theatre, she is a former journalist who is currently employed with the Ontario Association of Community Futures Development Corporations.