July 15, 2012
Review by WILLIAM GRACE. Mr. Grace is a summer resident of Bourne. He has a consulting business in educational publishing and an avid interest in musical theater.
You know the story, you know the music ,and you probably can sing many of the lyrics, yet “My Fair Lady” can still seem timeless, fresh, thrilling, and funny when brought to life by a talented theater company. The College Light Opera Company does just that this week at Highfield Theatre.
Samantha Helmstetter, as Eliza Doolittle, and Michael Puglia, as Professor Henry Higgins, generate a magnetic field that keeps the audience in the palm of their hands as they sing, dance, and fight their way through this Lerner and Loewe classic. Ms. Helmstetter’s Liza shines as a duchess even when she is described as “a squashed cabbage leaf” by Mr. Puglia’s overbearing and patronizing Higgins. They spar throughout the show with Liza enduring bullying, threats, and—worst of all—indifference, before emerging assertive and independent as a match for her tutor.
Mr. Puglia controls the stage, talking and singing the male chauvinistic fantasies of his virtues as “just an ordinary man,” and the dangers that befall when you “let a woman in your life.” He is at his best in the comic retelling of Liza’s triumphant performance at the Royal Ball where she passes as a lady of noble lineage.
Kyle Yampiro, as Colonel Pickering, is the straight man who sets up the laughs for the professor. He and Mr. Puglia and Ms. Helmstetter labor through the painful elocution lessons that lead to the joyful tango when Liza’s “Rain in Spain” finally falls on the plain in plain English. Mr. Puglia makes the logical Higgins touchingly sentimental when he sings “Accustomed to Her Face.”
Ms. Helmstetter makes Liza’s Cockney accent and dialect work beautifully in her early songs. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” is accompanied by a talented quartet of Cockney lads played by Mike Dorsey, Scott Wasserman, Brandon Grimes, and Brad Baron. They harmonize nicely with Ms. Helmstetter’s rich voice. She is amusingly homicidal in delivering her own fantasy of revenge when she sings “Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins.” When she sings “I Could Have Danced All Night,” she is accompanied by Higgins’s servants played by Rachel Marschke, Stephanie Dietz, Brynn Lewallen, Brian Bowman, and Ethan Contreras. It is a magical moment on stage because you come to understand that Liza is experiencing the joy of achievement. The moment gets better when the servants withdraw behind the curtain, and Ms. Helmstetter stands alone in the spotlight and sings the verses again. She really has a wonderful voice and the opening night audience recognized her with applause long after she left the stage.
There are plenty of laughs in this production, most of them coming right from the book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Liza’s stilted attempts at small talk at the Ascot opening day races are still very funny. Drifting from the safe conversational waters of weather and health, Liza nearly drowns in the telling of her aunt’s death: “Them ‘as pinched it [her straw hat], done her in.”
Brian Shaw does justice to the swagger and charm of Alfred P. Doolittle and leads his buddies in rollicking renditions of “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” James Soller, as Liza’s would-be beau Freddy, has a fine voice for the wistful song, “On the Street Where You Live.”
Stage director Mark A. Pearson makes the Ascot races memorable with his crowd of top-hatted gentlemen and begowned ladies posing stiffly while singing about how thrilling they feel and how frantic they are. Of course, Liza’s irrepressible enthusiasm bursts this bubble of decorum when she urges her horse to “move your blooming ****.”
Choreographer Heidi Kloes puts nearly the entire ensemble on stage for high-stepping dances in the flower market scenes with Mr. Doolittle. Costume designer Kake Boucher provides elegant gowns for the ladies. Liza’s transformation from frowzy to regal is stunning. The Cockney dancers are handsome in mixed plaids.
From overture to curtain call, this performance was superb.
“My Fair Lady” continues tonight and tomorrow night at 8. Tickets are $30 and are available by calling 508-548-0668, or by visiting the CLOC box office, 58 Highfield Drive, in Falmouth. Box office hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 AM to 12:30 PM, 2 to 5 PM, and 7 to 9 PM.
“Guys and Dolls” opens Tuesday, July 20, and runs through Saturday, July 24.