Mounting a classic Broadway musical means lots of sets, a huge cast, an orchestra and costumes out the wazoo, right? Not necessarily.
Ambler’s Act II Playhouse gets huge props for their bold move of presenting a minimalistic version of MY FAIR LADY, Lerner & Loewe’s 1956 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Utilizing their intimate space to the max, director Bud Martin has assembled a cast of 11 exceedingly talented performers to tell Shaw’s story. That’s right folks, only 11 actors. “I think MY FAIR LADY has perhaps the best book of any musical ever written.” states Martin “It’s a classic and virtually everyone knows and loves it.”
Concentrating on the burgeoning love/hate relationship between linguistic Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl he’s attempting to turn into a lady, Martin is exploring the tension between the two main characters more than previous productions have. “I hope everyone sees more in the characters than they did before, because there will be little distraction by large production numbers.” Everything about this production is fresh and inventive.
Martin took his cue from the pared down concert versions of musicals that have become a staple on PBS. Lit beautifully by James Leitner and Dave Todaro, Dirk Durosette’s set provides the perfect playing space for the actors. A raised area across the back of the stage serves as both the upper level of Higgins’ library and the front portico of his London home. A spiral staircase takes the cast down to floor level and wonderful use is made of it. Draped arches at either side of the space provide the varied entrances and exits and a rolling unit (that rests under the raised area when not in use) serves as Higgins’ speech laboratory. Everything else is created with four simple benches and a couple of chairs. Martin’s clever staging is pitch-perfect and Sonny Leo’s choreography is just “loverly.” The staging of the musical numbers organically flows out of the story and moves the action along nicely. Leo also serves as Music director and Robert Diton provides piano accompaniment.
The cast is solid. An ensemble of five handles all of the supporting characters, as well as Eliza’s cohorts in Covent Garden, the attendees at Ascot and assorted servants. Anabella Garcia, Owen Pelesh, Harrison Post and Jordi Wallen are accomplished singers and dancers, and bring wonderful details to their various characters. Mr. Post also adds his talents on the viola during “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Lindsay Mauck excels as Higgins’ stalwart housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, adding some great comedic moments. As Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Jonathan Silver is the epitome of a young man in love. He delivers “On the Street Where You Live” with all the passion he can muster. Mike Corr takes on the role of Eliza’s profligate father, Alfred Doolittle, bringing just the right tone of slapstick to it. The supporting cast is rounded out by two Philly stalwarts. Mary Martello is a gem as the Professor’s mother, Mrs. Higgins; she adds a hilarious bite to her exchanges with her son and lends her amazing singing voice to many of the numbers. Chris Faith brings a touch of ditheriness to Col. Pickering, an approach that I’ve never seen before. It also adds a new element that both he and Tony Braithwaite are of an age—and younger than other actors I’ve seen in the roles. Faith is a great foil for both Higgins and Eliza.
Which brings us to our leads… Incoming Producing Artistic Director Braithwaite pulls out all the stops for his portrayal of Higgins. He excels at these sophisticated, yet self-absorbed and priggish, characters; but he can also show the vulnerability underneath—something that has been missing in other Henrys I’ve seen. He manages to avoid mimicking Rex Harrison, whose name was synonymous with the role for decades. Braithwaite brings much more subtle comedy to his Henry. The lovely Eileen Cella is Eliza; she is a wonderful discovery with a clear beautiful voice that effortlessly handles the range of Eliza’s songs. Ms. Cella acts the songs, bringing a wealth of emotion to them. She also has great comedic instincts and plays the scenes where Eliza is trying so hard to be “posh” beautifully. It is interesting to note that Ms. Cello was once a student of Mr. Braithwaite’s at St. Joe’s Prep, where he directed her in several productions. They bring their past dynamic to the production, adding some nice colors to the relationship between Higgins and Eliza. And—for the first time in my memory—I really saw the love develop between these two very disparate people. Braithwaite’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” genuinely showed a man wrestling with his emotions and coming as close as he could to saying “I Love You” to a woman.
Now, remember how I mentioned those costumes in the beginning. Well, Act II wisely abandoned minimalism here. Millie Hiibel does a brilliant job evoking Edwardian London’s upper classes and the denizens of Covent Garden. Employing primarily earth tones throughout, she’s created some eye-catching ensembles for the actors to wear. The black and ecru outfits for “The Ascot Gavotte” are fabulous, and she’s given Eliza great pieces that take her from dirty flower girl to sophisticated young lady.
The entire production is a delight. Because of the intimacy of Act II’s theatre, the performers are not miked—you hear their natural singing voices instead of the sometimes tinny sound that microphones produce. The closeness of the audience also allows for nuanced acting that is often lacking in musical theatre. All of the performances were real and true to the story Shaw has provided for them. I suggest you hurry to order tickets, because I hear performances are selling out fast. In fact, it was announced opening night that the theatre has decided to extend the run until June 17th. So get to Ambler as soon as you can for an absolutely “Loverly” time.
MY FAIR LADY
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe
Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s PYGMALION
Directed by Bud Martin
Music Direction and Choreography by Sonny Leo
April 24 – June 17, 2012
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002