Downsized ‘Fair Lady’ loses none of its luster

J.T. Turner and ensemble in Lyric Stage Company's "My Fair Lady." Photo: Mark S. Howard

J.T. Turner and ensemble in Lyric Stage Company’s “My Fair Lady.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

BOSTON – It’s gotten to the point where we’re never surprised at what artists such as Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos and Director Scott Edmiston can do in the intimate Lyric Stage Company space on Clarendon Street.

Lyric routinely stages large-cast musicals such as “Into The Woods” “1776,” and “Sunday in the Park With George” with great aplomb.

Now comes a reimagined “My Fair Lady” that has been rescaled and recalibrated so that the Lerner and Loewe classic fits comfortably on the Lyric stage.

Jennifer Ellis and Christopher Chew in  "My Fair Lady." Photo: Mark S. Howard

Jennifer Ellis and Christopher Chew in “My Fair Lady.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

With the focus narrowed, Edmiston hones in even tighter on the characters and their relationships, and with this production, that’s a good thing

It’s gotten to the point that when a show features the actress Jennifer Ellis, both the critics and the audience have set an ever higher bar for her to scale. She herself set the bar pretty high this summer after back-to-back standout performances in Gloucester Stage’s “Out of Sterno” and Reagle’s “Wonderful Town.”

As Eliza Doolittle, Ellis effortlessly makes the transformation from a downtrodden young flower girl in London to a well-spoken, beautifully-mannered lady.

And while we again give Ellis her props, the hardest role by far in the piece is that of Professor Henry Higgins, the haughty, learned linguist whose dedication to his craft is complete, although he comes up seriously short as a human being.

Christopher Chew is a fine actor and singer, and he also happens to be smart – he holds a doctorate in education — and he masters the complicated rhythms of Higgins’ speech and his self-obsessed manner.

He sings Alan Jay Lerner’s wonderfully-wrought lyrics with clarity and a hearty singing voice, where other Higginses were content to “speak-sing” numbers such as “Why Can’t The English.”

The amiable Remo Airaldi provides comedic support as Col. Hugh Pickering, who becomes the “good cop” to Higgins’ “bad cop” as Eliza is drilled in the vagaries of the proper use of the English language.

J.T. Turner is delightful as Eliza’s wayward father, the rapscallion/philosopher Alfred P. Doolittle., and Beth Gotha is also solid as Mrs. Higgins, disdainful of her son’s attitude towards Eliza and the world in general.

Cheryl McMahon reprises with aplomb the role of Higgins’ beleaguered housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, a role she played with great distinction in the North Shore Music Theatre’s 2011 production of “Fair Lady.”

Jared Troilo as Eliza’s smitten suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill gives a soaring rendition of “On The Street Where You Live,” my personal favorite number in the show.

Music Director Catherine Stornetta heads a three-piece ensemble of keyboard, cello and violin, capturing the nuances of the Lerner-Loewe score and allowing the actors to reach the last row of the house without any amplification.

If the downsizing of “My Fair Lady” suffers at all, it’s in the staging of production numbers such as “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and it’s not a knock on the efforts of Turner as Alfred P. Doolittle or a talented, energetic ensemble. There is only so much room to be had on the stage.

Janie E. Howland’s set design accents the theme of phonics and language. Without extensive set changes, there’s all the more emphasis on spending on the costumes, and this production has done just that with the lovely creations of award-winning costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley, including Ellis’ backless ball gown that had male heads on a swivel at a recent performance, and the particularly strikingly-attired actors and actresses in scenes such as “Ascot Gavotte.”

David Connolly’s choreography emphasizes energy and precision given the tight quarters.

Amelia Broome has emerged as one of the top dialect coaches around and the entire cast escapes  with British accents intact – no slipping in and out of them.

My guess is this show will be a tough ticket for the rest of its run, and deservedly so. It distills “My Fair Lady” down to its basic elements, and they just happen to be a superb score and a book based on George Bernard Shaw’s timeless classic “Pygmalion.”

So, yes, Ellis’ summer to remember will continue right through the official end of summer and on through the fall, as the run continues to Oct. 11.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of “My Fair Lady.” Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe. Based on the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” and the film by Gabriel Pascal. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Through Oct. 11 at Lyric Stage Company of Boston. www.lyricstage.com

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