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Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

My Fair Lady
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland

Also see Garrett's review of Something Rotten!


Jeffery Blair Cornell and Mia Pinero
Photo by Jon Gardiner
With the recent PBS megahit "Downton Abbey" bright in our memory, it's easy to find familiar ground in the early Edwardian play turned musical, My Fair Lady, currently being produced by PlayMakers Repertory Company under the direction of Tyne Rafaeli. This classic of the American theatre is a great opportunity to savor the aesthetic and culture of vintage British society, with a brilliant score as an added bonus.

The well known story follows Eliza Doolittle (a rapturous Mia Pinero making her PlayMakers debut), a Cockney woman condemned by her upbringing to a life as a destitute fLoewer girl on the streets of Covent Garden. While selling her wares to a passerby on the street, she notices that her words are being jotted down by a mysterious gentleman. He turns out to be Professor Henry Higgins, a spot-on Jeffery Blair Cornell. The man Eliza was selling a fLoewer to happens to be Colonel Pickering, a delightful Ray Dooley; upon recognizing each other as famous phonetics scholars, the two men become immediate friends and decamp to Higgins's house. After hearing his claim that he could pass off Eliza, a "disgrace to the English language," as a duchess at an Embassy Ball, she seeks the Professor out for diction lessons. On the spur of the moment Higgins takes Pickering's wager to turn her into a lady in six months' time, and the plot is set in motion, bouncing back and forth between the aristocratic world Eliza has entered and the working-class world she is gradually leaving behind.

Tyne Rafaeli has done a fine job investing this American classic with all its British flair, while investing it with notable modernity. At the beginning of the twentieth century, great change was being seen throughout Great Britain as the Second Industrial Revolution pushed forward and the movement for women's rights and equality was just starting to be taken seriously. This production puts a decidedly feminist spin on the Pygmalion story (George Bernard Shaw's play, based on the Greek myth, which served as the source material for Lerner and Loewe). Early in act one we see a strong-willed and self-preserving Eliza pull a knife on men who try to pinch her purse, and the final moment at the end of act two is a fresh-feeling departure from convention. Watching Eliza stride with increasing confidence through her life resonates strongly with recent images of women marching, connecting this material viscerally with the present day.

Mark Hartman does a fine job as music director, accompanied by Alex Thompson. The two perform the beautiful and memorable score at two pianos off to the side of the stage. They deliver an intricate arrangement, though at times the impact of a full orchestra is sorely missed. Choreography by Tracy Bersley has moments of inspiration but never seems to be carried completely through. The "Ascot Gavotte" appears to have been inspired in party by Bob Fosse's iconic "Rich Man's Frug" from Sweet Charity, an odd reference in this context.

The production is overall nicely put together but perhaps not as inspired as other work seen recently here. McKay Coble's scenic design seems fitting and capitalizes well on PlayMakers' flexible thrust space. There is a brief moment of simulated snow used at the beginning, which seems a bit unnecessary, especially as leftovers trickle down at inappropriate times throughout the show, and much of it remains on the stage even in scenes that are supposed to be in Higgins's study. Costume design by Andrea Hood is appropriate though unremarkable. In her Playmakers debut, Masha Tsimring seems to have had difficulty lighting the space. At the performance I attended, there were times when lights came on and off with no particular reason, and at other times harsh spots cast washed out the performers, flattening them and raising foreboding shadows, undercutting moments that are intended to be cheerful. Sound design by Anna Warda Alex also lacks polish, with performers sometimes sounding tinny through the amplification.

The musical is truly carried by the ferocity of Eliza Doolittle, or in this case Mia Pinero, whose beautiful soprano is itself worth the price of admission. Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Henry Higgins channels the iconic Rex Harrison, though in a more subdued register, even down to the recitative approach to his songs. Supporting standouts come in the form of PlayMakers regulars Julia Gibson as Mrs. Pierce and the delightful Julie Fishell as Mrs. Higgins, who in this portrayal could be a long lost sister to the Dowager Countess on "Downton Abbey." Gary Milner, making his PlayMakers debut as Alfred P. Doolittle, steals the show every time he takes the stage with his portrayal of a man who seems to make it through anything the world throws at him "with a little bit of luck." Jade Arnold is in fine voice as the lovesick Freddy Eynsford-Hill, though his diction drifts into Cockney at times.

My Fair Lady stands out as one of the most perfectly constructed of American musicals. The book is tight with both comedic and dramatic moments throughout, and its score of well loved songs bursting with beautiful music and witty lyrics by Lerner and Loewe holds up well over the years. The musical, which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary just last year, will no doubt celebrate many more.

My Fair Lady is presented by PlayMakers at the Paul Green Theatre at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 through April 29, 2017. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased online at www.playmakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529.

Adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play and Gabriel Pascal's motion picture Pygmalion

Book and Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner
Music: Frederick Loewe
Director: Tyne Rafaeli
Music Director: Mark Hartman
Choreography: Tracy Bersley
Scenic Design: McKay Coble
Costume Design: Andrea Hood
Lighting Design: Masha Tsimring
Sound Design: Anna Warda Alex

Cast:
Eynsford: Jade Arnold
Professor Henry Higgins: Jeffrey Blair Cornell
Colonel Pickering: Ray Dooley
Mrs. Pearce: Julia Gibson
Mrs. Higgins: Julie Fishell
Alfred P. Doolittle: Gary Milner
Eliza Doolittle: Mia Pinero
Ensemble: David Adamson, Carlos Alcala, John Allore, Catherine Baird, Bradley Barefoot, Rishan Dhamija, Alex Givens, Emmett Holladay Anderson, Jenny Latimer, Shanelle Nicole Leonard, Christine Mirzayan, Tristan Parks


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