By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The current production of My Fair Lady at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center garnered both plaudits and boos from those familiar with the original work because of several changes made to embolden the downtrodden character of Eliza Doolittle. The producers got special permission from the estates of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe to alter the portrayal of Miss Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl who is transformed into a proper British lady, with a new emphasis intended to make her more sympathetic to the #metoo and #timesout generation.
Rest assured, though, the latest production of the very same musical now playing at Dixon Hall as part of Summer Lyric at Tulane’s (SLT) season, will deliver a true reflection of the original cast that first opened in 1956 on Broadway and later played in London, both times starring Julie Andrews as Eliza, Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins and Stanley Holloway as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father.
In fact, it’s one of the very best productions of this classic musical ever seen on a local stage.
Directed by SLT artistic director Michael McKelvey, this production stars a newcomer, Jackie Vanderbeck, in the pivotal role of Eliza. Having never performed in New Orleans, there were questions about her abilities to carry off such a large part. After all, one needs not only to be a fine singer and be able to hit some rather extraordinarily high notes, but the very nature of the role requires a transformation from a lowly mendicant into a woman of extreme beauty, whose countenance captures all who survey her.
Any doubts as to her abilities are soon dispelled with the very first song she sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”
In addition to a lovely voice, she has the bold and brassy moves needed to keep up with Professor Henry Higgins, played by Christopher Carey, the dashing leading man of so many previous Summer Lyric performances. A charming actor himself, Carey’s singing is considerably better than the originator of the role, the so-called “Sexy Rexy,” who employed a songspiel approach to the role to offset his less-than-stellar vocal ability.
The tension between the irrepressible Eliza and the intransigent Professor Higgins can be cut with a knife. In her quest to better her station in life, Eliza finds that she frees herself from the chains of poverty only to be circumscribed by society’s expectations of her. “What’s to become of me?” she questions late in Act Two.
Stealing the show is the remarkable Bob Edes, Jr. in his rendition of Alfred Doolittle. The older Doolittle’s philosophy of life is best reflected in “With a Little Bit of Luck,” in which he proudly confesses to sponging off his child, shirking productive work and drinking to excess. This is also a great opportunity to show off some of Diane Lala’s brilliant choreography and the rousing number “Get Me to the Church on Time” in Act Two.
Comic performances turned in by Sean Patterson as Higgins’ fellow phoneticist, Colonel Pickering, and Keith Claverie for his featured role as Zoltan Karpathy, a cagey phoneticist on the prowl to investigate Eliza, are both superb.
Featured at the end of Act One with ‘On the Street Where You Live,” tenor John Michael Haas reprises that song once more in Act Two. Haas once again thrills us with his golden tenor voice and his charming stage presence this time as Freddy Einsford-Hill. Last seen in JPAS’s West Side Story and The Huncback of Notre Dame, Haas returns to the Summer Lyric stage, where he played Tony and Candide in the “Bernstein at 100!” presentation earlier this month.
There are many reasons why this Lerner and Loewe musical is among their most beloved and McKelvey handles the direction with aplomb. Another reason this show rises so high is the fantastic conducting by musical director C. Leonard Raybon and his outstanding musical ensemble.
Costumes are wonderfully executed by Glenn Avery Breed with excellent lighting design by Daniel Zimmer and great sound design by Theo Fogleman.
My Fair Lady concludes its run at Dixon Hall this afternoon at 2:00 p.m.