By Dawn Watson
The story of “My Fair Lady” is one that is at least vaguely familiar: Eligible bachelor and refined professor Henry Higgins takes Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle out of the gutter and into the drawing room, transforming her into a lady, to the delight of all.
But there’s so much more to the story in the classic and crowd-pleasing tale, which Bay Street Theater has mined in its season-ending production. As staged in Sag Harbor, the popular narrative unfolds to reveal a real journey of self discovery and empowerment, strength of character and class distinction. In it, Eliza is so much more than the perky pawn of a clever linguist. She’s a true heroine and a shining example of integrity, grit and honor.
It’s interesting that this frothy little musical with zippy numbers actually does come with a message. It’s not just the fish-out-of-water makeover fairy tale that one might remember from stage and film. The message in “My Fair Lady,” at least in this staging by director Michael Arden, is clear. Work hard, do the right thing, stand up for what you believe in and be your best self.
What a breath of fresh air! Particularly in the social climate we find ourselves more and more immersed in of late.
I caught the show on its sold-out opening night last week. It’s always rewarding to see at full theater, especially when the production is as good as the one here.
Fresh off his Tony Award nomination for Best Direction of a Musical for his work on the revival of “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, Mr. Arden shows here why he will win that Tony someday soon. He makes such smart and entertaining choices in this production, which features two pianos and cast of 15—much better suited to the smallish Bay Street stage than the original enormous company as imagined by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
Of course Eliza, played brilliantly by Kelli Barrett, is the star of the show. She’s absolutely winning, whether she’s the “deliciously low” early version of herself or the composed lady of the end. Particularly impressive, aside from the terrific dialect work, is her magnificent voice. Ms. Barrett’s take on “I Could Have Danced All Night” is more than enough reason to see the show. I could have listened to her singing that all night.
Paul Alexander Nolan is a wonderful Higgins, providing him with surprising levels of complexity. Expect to see much more from this actor, who most recently received a Drama Desk nomination for his work in “Bright Star.” And Howard McGillin’s portrayal of Colonel Pickering had me rooting almost as much for him as for Eliza. I’d pay good money to see the show rewritten with his character as a romantic lead.
The ensemble here is also quite strong, with Carole Shelley as Mrs. Higgins and John O’Creagh as Alfred Doolittle really standing out for their work. Well done to them both for making the most of their parts. But the whole pro group—actors and behind-the-scenes company members—should be commended on its work. More than an Equity production, this is a Broadway-caliber show and one that should most definitely be seen. This small cast (and crew) with big talent rocks the Bay Street production of “My Fair Lady.”
“My Fair Lady” stages at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor through Sunday, September 4. Tickets start at $40. For additional information and reservations, visit www.baystreet.org.