Sarah O'Hara and Doug Swenson in Four Seasons Theatre's My Fair Lady.
There are songs from my childhood that I had forgotten how much I love, and the Four Seasons Theatre production of My Fair Lady is bursting with them. The tunes by Lerner and Loewe feel like the dictionary definition of a Broadway musical. Friday night in Wisconsin Union Theater, they had the crowd cheering, particularly "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church On Time." Director Tony Trout has assembled a top-notch cast and crew.
The story is, of course, based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. A sanctimonious phonetics professor, Henry Higgins, bets that after intensive training to change her low-class accent, he can pass off the flower-peddling "guttersnipe" Eliza Doolittle as a duchess. As a prototype for the makeover shows that clog television, there is something very satisfying about this transformation -- despite discomforting themes of classism, entitlement and the objectification of women.
Sarah O'Hara as Eliza is a delight. She's feisty and combative in early scenes as she massacres Higgins' beloved English language, her voice so grating that what would be a simple "oooo" becomes a rollercoaster ride of mangled vowel sounds. O'Hara shows us Doolittle's vulnerability under the sass, and her fundamental decency throughout reveals that she was always a true lady.
O'Hara has a pretty voice, and her acting is even more impressive. She is versatile and blessed with good comic timing. A highlight is her triumphant "Just You Wait," in which she plots to do in Higgins. In the dreamy "I Could Have Danced All Night," which follows, she discovers her changing feelings for him. She brings on belly laughs when, at the races, she is introduced to society in the most outrageous hat, and tells an equally outrageous story.
Doug Swenson portrays Henry Higgins with the right amount of persnickety imperiousness. Even when he's singing the misogynist anthem "Hymn to Him" -- it asks the age-old question: Why can't women be more like men? -- you can't deny his charm. He's a brute who is frequently cruel and unapologetically classist, referring to Doolittle as a "creature" and his "project." But as played by Swenson he is smart and funny, and I found myself rooting for the romance.
As Colonel Hugh Pickering, Higgins' partner in the experiment, Whitney Derendinger is more humane than his colleague. In the very zesty "The Rain in Spain," he lets loose as a charging bull and a dynamic flamenco dancer while Doolittle has a breakthrough moment in her training. Tom Hensen, as Eliza's rascally and loutish father, brings to mind Jackie Gleason with his abundant charisma and light-on-his-feet-for-a-large-man dancing. Gwynne Bishop as Higgins' mother has some witty lines but seemed a bit skittish. That may have been opening-night jitters.
The full orchestra sounds lush and is certainly not the squawky, rinky-dink accompaniment some local musicals are stuck with. Conductor Eric Anderson is a true gentleman, sneaking peeks at the cast to get the timing right as he leads his capable team.
I'm not sure about the decision to have the orchestra perform on the stage. They take up a huge amount of space. Other than a small black staircase, the show relies on props and furniture to create different locations. Sometimes this is fine, but when the entire ensemble is on stage, it becomes quite crowded. The well-known Ascot scene, with its clever and lavish costumes (gorgeous hats-off to designers Susan Gustaf and Leslie Frank-Taylor) and smart choreography from Brian Cowing, would be even more spectacular without the visual distraction of the orchestra.
A minor beef is that the embassy-ball scene feels flat and a bit clunky, ending the first act in a blah way that lacks the polish of the rest of this classy production.
I shouldn't forget to commend dialect coach Karen Moeller for her good work. British accents can sometimes be cringe-inducing, but not here.
It was a long night in the warm Wisconsin Union Theater, but those wonderful songs kept coming. They made me glad to be there.