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The Fairest One of All

By James Yeara

My Fair Lady

Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Fredrick Loewe, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and the Gabrial Pascal film

Directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, musical direction by Michael Hicks, Capital Repertory Theatre, through Dec. 20

Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill’s My Fair Lady in an intimate, enticing affair. Seven champagne-colored umbrellas, opened but tipped down so the luck doesn’t fall out, fly from the ceiling, over the audience and upstage. Six gramaphones also fly from the ceiling, with a seventh rolled out onstage for the key elocution scenes. Two pianos rest on a turnstile upstage center, surrounded by four pillars with balustrade, and various characters, chiefly Mrs. Pearce (Emily Mikesell), Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Michael Hicks), Colonel Pickering (Larry Daggett), step up to take turns playing the pianos. Since there is no need for them to overcome an unseen orchestra, the actors are unmiked; the music and actors meld. The music becomes part of the staging, and the 15-actor cast becomes another instrument in the orchestration, even during the overture and entr’acte music. Instead of bloated spectacle, akin to smothering Thanksgiving dinner with ketchup, Mancinelli-Cahill’s smart aesthetic here allows the words and the notes to be not just heard, but felt.

This 1957 Tony Award-winning musical has long been an audience favorite on regional stages, but Capital Rep’s current production really allows the story and characters at its heart to come into focus. Allison Spratt hits all the notes you’d want from an Eliza Doolittle: the vulnerability of a Cockney flower girl daydreaming that it would “be loverly” if she had common creature comforts; a heart that “could have danced all night” as she masters the elocution of the ruling class; the comedic chops to create laughs during the Ascot Races; the transformation to stunning grace and beauty for the Embassy Waltz; and the acting integrity after the ball to create the Ibsen-tinted transformation as first hurt, then doubt, then the cold epiphany plays across Eliza’s face as she listens to Pickering, Mrs. Pearce, and Higgins (Fred Rose) exalt that “You Did It.” It’s a stunning moment when Eliza moves silently between the pianos in her white moth evening gown, to stand upstage left in the shadows as the trio struts and recreates “Higgins’ triumph.” When she touches her diamond necklace as if realizing who holds the leash, and turns her back on them, it’s one of many moments when the acting takes equal footing with the singing.

And Spratt’s Eliza can sing. While the lines of dialogue are not just a means to a song in this My Fair Lady, Spratt has an evocative soprano voice that she uses to full measure in the beautiful “I could Have Danced All Night” and “Show Me.” Who knew that you could find in a musical not just bombast and eye candy but characters, story, plot, theme, and a multitude of emotions?

Rose’s Professor Higgins is a fit match for Spratt’s blossoming Eliza. Shaw named his play after Pygmalion, the mythical Greek sculptor who falls helplessly in love with his sculpture; Rose creates a professor whose insights into culture are staggeringly brilliant, but whose knowledge of himself is pitifully small. When Rose’s Higgins declares just before the Embassy Ball, “What could possibly matter more than to take a human being and change her into a different human being by creating a new speech for her? Why, it’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class, and soul from soul,” it’s a revelation. The belief does not get lost in the run-up to song. To praise this too lightly would be shame.

To cavil about the choreography or the oddly spotty lighting are to slight the delight of this production. Theater companies are notorious for surrounding critics with friends of the theater and other such stooges. But, when changing my seat after intermission, I overheard a Scotia woman say that this was her first time seeing the musical live and that it was true to expectaion. “It’s just delightful,” she said. “I’d drive people from Scotia to see it.” That’s a holiday gift that would be a shame to miss.

 


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