“My Fair Lady” -- Summer Theatre of New Canaan

By Irene Backalenick

What a fresh, charming production of “My Fair Lady” -- now playing under the tent at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan! Everything has a fairy tale quality as the familiar musical unfolds.

 

The New Canaan company has a good grip on the show, using its own limitations to good effect. Not a high-tech operation, but so what! Attractively-painted sets (designed by Charles Pavarini III) that give a two-dimensional look to the world of Eliza Doolittle, are moved about manually. But that works, as do the dazzling costumes of Arthur Oliver. In fact, everything works, bringing back the memories of the original show.

 

That original production, with book/lyrics by Alan Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, opened on Broadway in 1956 and went on to be a hit. It was based on Shaw’s 1912 play “Pygmalian” (which in itself was based on a Greek myth).

 

Thus a long and honorable history. But for those unfamiliar with the show or play, here’s the story. Shaw was concerned with the British class distinctions, so strong in the Edwardian era. His anti-hero Henry Higgins is a speech professor, noted for his study of speech distinctions, determined by class and locale. He takes Eliza, a lowly flower girl, and, on a wager, determines to make her a “lady” by way of altering her speech. But Eliza, contrary to the professor’s plans, grows not only in elegant expression but in self-discovery and self-expression. “My Fair Lady” turns out to be, not only a critique of English society, but a feminist statement. But, most of all, it turns out to be a smashing show, with marvelous songs and memorable characters.

 

And, thanks to the Summer Theatre of New Canaan, the tradition carries on. Richard Sheridan Willis creates a strong Henry Higgins, putting his own stamp on the character. He manages to combine charm and irascibility in equal measure, from the moment he comes on stage. (He appears first around the corner, slouched against a wall, hidden under his hat.)

 

Every bit his match is Jazmin Gorsline, who plays the feisty Eliza, giving the character depth and poignancy. Memorable also is Brian Silliman as Alfie Doolittle, Eliza’s loving father. Silliman is one of the company’s living treasures, creating a delicious and hilarious character (as he has in such past performances as Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch). And with fine performances right on target are Gary Harger as Colonel Pickering and Anne Holbrook as Henry Higgins’ mother. Christian Libonati is an appealing Freddie, who is hopelessly in love with Eliza. They are all backed by a solid ensemble, under Allegra Libonati’s steady direction.

 

In all, a happy tramp into another world -- not so much the Edwardian world as the Lerner-Loewe-Libonati world.

 

This review also appears on nytheaterscene.com

 

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