By Ellen Wilson Dilks
“It’s about filling up the deepest cut that separates class from class and soul from soul.”
Quintessence Theatre Group continues their eighth season with a holiday production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Running at the historic Sedgewick Theatre on Germantown Avenue, the musical is directed by Artistic Director Alexander Burns, with performances now through December 23.
Using the story from George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 comedy of manners, Pygmalion, Alan Jay Lerner created the book and lyrics, with Frederick Loewe providing the music. My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956; it was a huge success and catapulted Julie Andrews to stardom. After Shaw’s death, film producer Gabriel Paschal (who had purchased the screen rights to a number of Shaw’s plays) approached Lerner about turning the story into a musical. The lyricist agreed and was soon at work with his partner Loewe. However, they found that the story violated several key rules for constructing a musical: the main story was not a love story, there was no subplot or secondary love story, and there was no place for an ensemble. It looked like the two would join a list of Broadway composers who failed at turning Pygmalion into a musical—including Rodgers & Hammerstein. Obviously, they figured it out…. The musical’s script used several scenes that Shaw had written especially for the 1938 film version of Pygmalion, including the Embassy Ball sequence and the final scene of the 1938 film rather than the ending for Shaw’s original play. The montage showing Eliza’s lessons was also expanded, combining both Lerner and Shaw’s dialogue. The title comes from an alternate title Shaw had considered, Fair Eliza, as well as the last line in each verse of London Bridge Is Falling Down.
My Fair Lady deals with celebrated Professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins, who makes a bet with his friend, Colonel Pickering, that he can teach a Covent Garden flower girl how to pass as a duchess at the upcoming Embassy Ball. By dressing her in expensive clothing, improving her manners, and teaching her how to speak correctly, Higgins transforms Eliza Doolittle into a lady. Putting their own spin on it, Quintessence’s production explores “what remains of the 20th century’s rigid class system and the importance of appearances for a 21st century woman.”
“There even are places where English completely disappears!
In America, they haven’t used it for years!”
Director Burns challenges himself and his cast by staging the musical with audience on both sides of the playing space. It requires extra thought on the part of the director and extra awareness by the actors to make sure that both groups of viewers get equal face time. The Quintessence company pulls this off. They use the overture to pantomime the story that inspired Shaw’s Pygmalion—a portion of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, wherein an artist falls in love with his statue of his idea of the perfect woman and the statue comes to life. Burns paces things well and scene changes are accomplished quickly and smoothly. I did feel a couple of the dance numbers went on too long.
The cast is a solid ensemble, supporting each other well. Lee Cortopassi is adorably dorky as Freddy Einsford-Hill, and his voice is the strongest in the bunch. “On The Street Where You Live” was just delightful. Cortopassi also pops up as part of the ensemble is several of the numbers, allowing him to show some variety. Doug Hara does double duty as Colonel Pickering and Harry (one of Alfred Doolittle’s buddies). He gives each role a different spin. Bradley Mott is a crowd pleaser as Doolittle, getting all the laughs out of his two big numbers. Mott also plays Karpathy (Higgins’ former student who may blow Eliza’s cover at the ball) and a Lord at Ascot. Marcia Saunders is a delight as both Higgins’ acerbic housekeeper, Mrs. Pierce, and his droll mother, Mrs. Higgins. No one can land a stinging one-liner as well as Saunders.
The “Ensemble” consists of six new young Philly actors: Stephen Tornetta, Ebony Pullum, Rakeem Lawrence, Maya, Lerman, Jordan Dobson, and Kristin Devine. All of them sing and dance their hearts out.
Gregory Isaac’s Professor Higgins is an arrogant bully who uses Eliza with no regard to her feelings. Isaac does bring a certain charm to the role, redeeming Higgins a tad, and he has a great singing voice. After having Rex Harrison’s speaking the songs so ingrained in my head, it was nice to hear Isaac’s voice in such songs as “An Ordinary Man” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” Leigha Kato’s Eliza is scrappy. Her Cockney accent was difficult to understand, but she was much better as Eliza evolved into the polished lady. And she has a lovely singing voice as well. Her version of “Loverly” was sweet, and she pulls out all the stops for “Show Me.”
“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”
Things on the technical side were interesting. Quintessence chose to set the musical in present time—a mixed “blessing.” Led by Musical Director Christopher Ertelt, Quintessence is using a score created for two pianos—which are placed at either end of the playing space. Doug Greene has created a simple playing area with double entrances at either end as well as exits up the aisles. Basic set pieces are moved off and on the create the various locales of the story. I have to admit it took some getting used to when Higgins opened a laptop though. Kaki Burns choreography is clever and snappy and David Sexton lights everything well. Christina Bullard’s costuming was confusing. In the opening sequence in front of the theatre on into the action at Covent Gardens, members of the ensemble were in either flannel shirts and hoodies with wool caps or shirt skirts and sleeveless tops. Is it winter? Is it summer? Higgins, Pickering and Freddy were all in rather Edwardian looking suits, while everyone else was in more current clothes. It was an odd grab-bag, for lack of a better term.
In light of the recent events with multiple powerful men being accused of sexual harassment and assault, the relationship between Higgins and Eliza is problematic—why does she stay in the end? Why would a woman today put up with a man so self-absorbed as Higgins? If one looks at the story in terms of the concept of showing the power of language and the ability to speak properly and articulate your ideas, it is relevant to the 21st century. One will go further in the world if able to present themselves well.
Quintessence’s production of My Fair Lady does get one thinking, which what good theatre should do. The audience during the night I attended was having a grand time and the much-loved score is enjoyable to hear. So, head to Mt. Airy and see for yourself. I mean, I’m only human, I may have missed something.
IF YOU GO: My Fair Lady continues now through December 30, 2017—with performances Wednesdays to Sundays. Evening curtain time is 7:30, Saturday matinees are at 2pm and Sunday matinees are at 3pm. The running time for My Fair Lady is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission. Quintessence Theatre group is located at 7137 Germantown Avenue (19119) in the city’s Mt. Airy section. The Box Office can be reached at 215-987-4450. For detailed information on this production, as well as any other info, visit www.quintessencetheatre.org