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Sunday, June 25, 2017

My Fair Lady Still a Classic at Olney

Todd Scofield (Colonel Pickering), Brittany Campbell (Eliza Doolittle), 
and Danny Bernardy 
(Henry Higgins) (Photo: Stan Barouh)
Full disclosure: My Fair Lady is my all-time favorite musical.  #hocoarts 
It was my first Broadway LP album, and I must have played it a hundred times loving each song like it was the best of the best. The musical presents an enjoyable storyline woven together by a lush score, lavish costumes and eye-pleasing sets.

It’s been wildly popular and successful Tony Award winning show for over 60 years played throughout the world in dozens of languages. The 1964 film version was a multiple Oscar winner and box office smash.  In short, My Fair Lady is a classic and has been appropriately dubbed my many as “the perfect musical.”

So you can understand my apprehension when early chatter suggested that a “new” My Fair Lady directed by Alan Souza would be mounted at the Olney Theatre Center. In fact, the program quotes Artistic Director Jason Loewith touting the Center’s “reputation for rigorous explorations of the classics.”  Butterflies started to creep in because I’ve seen in the past how some directors take classics on a dubious course in the name of creativity and frankly blow it. 

However, I am pleased—no ecstatic—to report that this iteration of My Fair Lady at Olney does not deviate at the core: all the extraordinary songs and characters are retained, and except for some tweaks around the edges including changing the setting to the 1920’s—10 years later than the original—simpler scenery, and the casting of younger male leads, this production, despite a few minor flaws, excels.  

I applaud the efforts of Mr. Souza for keeping the production true to its successful roots and showcasing the sterling talents of the superbly cast leads and terrific but relatively small ensemble.

The music by Frederick Lowe and the utterly outstanding lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner are the centerpiece of My Fair Lady.  The book by Mr. Lerner was based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.  

The familiar story centers on a young Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, literally plucked from the streets of London by erudite phoneticist Professor Henry Higgins in an uphill battle to turn her speech patterns around and ultimately make her pass as a lady.  Their relationship takes on an interesting dynamic as the show proceeds.  All this transpires with the clear division, values and conflicts between the upper and lower classes of London as the backdrop.

With most musicals, if there are three or four songs that are memorable, that would be considered a success.  In My Fair Lady’s first-rate catalog there are well over a dozen such songs, each distinct and blessed with wonderful melodies and witty lyrics.  The songs don’t just serve as filler or interruptions; they move the action forward and maintain an integral place in the story.

The iconic “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and “Get Me to the Church On Time” are favorites for sure.  But even the others, such as “I’m an Ordinary Man,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “You Did It,” and “Show Me” are also examples of tuneful numbers that always please.

Mr. Lerner’s lyrics are as good as it gets in musical theatre.  They advance the story with wit and charm, and many leave a smile as the numbers are performed. 

In the Olney production, however, I found that several of the songs’ arrangements allowed for hurried performances by the vocalists. Because of that increased tempo, the marvelous lyrics contained in “Why Can’t the English?”, “I’m An Ordinary Man,”  “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and “Hymn to Him” for instance, the full potency of those lyrics is not as completely absorbed as they should be.  If anything, the lyrics should be drawn out a tad more so the audience feels the impact of their wit.

Brittany Campbell plays the part of the ornery Eliza with sass and class.  Possessing a soaring soprano voice, Ms. Campbell delivered excellent renditions of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “The Rain in Spain,” and “Show Me,” and she truly triumphs in the big number “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

One small quibble I have is with the song “Just You Wait,” a number where an exasperated Eliza is expressing her defiance towards Higgins, Ms. Campbell needs to be consistent with the dialect. It’s noticeable to those of us My Fair Lady enthusiasts.

Eliza hadn’t mastered the proper speech at this point so the Cockney version of “just you wait” should be pronounced “just you white” and the word “late” should be pronounced “light” throughout the song.  Hopefully, that will be fixed for future performances.

Other than that minor hiccup, Ms. Campbell is outstanding as a vocalist, and her acting is spot on as Eliza with all the voice inflections, facial expressions and body language required by the part.
As the pompous, chauvinistic bully Professor Henry Higgins, Danny Bernardy hit it out of the park aided by a superbly strong speaking voice—perfect for theatre.  His onstage chemistry with Ms. Campbell is fantastic and essential for the production to be successful.

Solid all around and executing his songs with the appropriate amount of flair, Mr. Bernardy is a man in perpetual motion in virtually every scene.  It’s not that he is dancing, but his precise high energy movements on the stage, especially during his vocal performances, are well choreographed and executed. 

Higgins’ sidekick is Colonel Pickering, also a phoneticist, who wagered that Higgins could not turn the disheveled Eliza into a lady to pass as such in London’s upper crust society.  He lost the bet but is pleased to see the results.

Todd Scofield ably plays the role of Pickering authoritatively trying to rein in Higgins’ impatience and coldness towards Eliza.

Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, is an unmarried working class boozer. Chris Genebach plays the role to the hilt with a muscular voice and excellent dancing.  “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church On Time” are his featured songs, and he along with the energetic ensemble under the choreography by Grady McLeod Bowman, perform these numbers exceptionally.

Benjamin Lurye plays Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza’s suitor with whom she has little interest.  His one number, “On the Street Where You Live” (and reprise) was performed very well and was an audience pleaser.

Notable performances were also turned in by Valerie Leonard as Higgins’ stern housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce,  as well as the socialite Mrs. Higgins, mother of Henry, who clearly has issues with her son.  The remainder of the cast and ensemble support the leads with great talent.

Christopher Youstra is the Music Director of this song-splashed show.  Andra Velis Simon competently conducted the 11-piece orchestra without drowning out the vocalists.
Sound Designer Matt Rowe deserves props for his simulation of galloping horses circling the theater’s interior during the race at the Ascot Racetrack.

Photo: Stan Barouh

Costume Designer Pei Lee does a good job of having the cast attired in period garb representative of the 1920’s.

Other than for the scenes in Higgins’ study where an impressively tall dropdown book case dominates the stage, James Fouchard designed a simple but functional set.  The moving of small set pieces around the stage during some of the numbers by the performers add texture to the visuals.

All in all the Olney’s version of My Fair Lady scores high marks for not only staying true to the classic work but also for enabling a talented, energetic cast to do justice to this magnificent musical. 

With a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck, you should find the time to see this show.

Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

My Fair Lady runs through July 23 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online

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