Tracy Neff (Eliza Doolittle) and Warren Kimmel (Henry Higgins) before the phonetics lessons start. (photo by Tim Matheson)
It was hard not to sing along. In fact, the couple in the row behind me couldn’t stop themselves on more than one occasion. So wonderfully witty and familiar are all of the songs in My Fair Lady, which is playing at Massey Theatre until April 26.
Directed by Max Reimer, the Royal City Musical Theatre production is well worth the trip to New Westminster. If you’re like me, the proposition is daunting. I made an afternoon and evening of it, heading out from Vancouver before rush hour, enjoying a walk along the quay and dinner with friends before heading to the theatre for the 7:30 p.m. show. While it took almost an hour to get to New West, I made it back in about 25 minutes. Granted, that’s about 15 minutes longer than if I had been coming from downtown, but the parking was plentiful and free – and I had longer to sing in the car on the way home, which made the drive seem that must faster.
I had forgotten just how funny are the book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner – even 50ish years after they premièred on Broadway! With the stellar cast enunciating brilliantly, nary a word was lost, and the 22-piece live orchestra and 30-plus cast also gave justice to Frederick Loewe’s music.
Of course, the musical’s origins go back further, more than 100 years, to George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Phonetics professor Henry Higgins bets phonetics enthusiast Colonel Pickering that he can take Eliza Doolittle, a street seller of flowers, and transform her: “You see this creature with her curbstone English that’ll keep her in the gutter till the end of her days? In six months, I could pass her off as a duchess at an embassy ball. I could even get her a job as a lady’s maid or a shop assistant, which requires better English.” (In Shaw’s version, the bet is three months to “pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.”)
Led by Warren Kimmel as Prof. Higgins and Tracy Neff as Eliza, there are many standouts in the Royal City production, including John Payne as the charming scoundrel Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, and tenor Thomas Lamont as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who falls for Eliza at the Ascot (her test run as a lady) when she cheers on the horse Dover to win, hollering, “Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!” In addition to Kimmel, other Jewish community members involved in the show are Jonathan Boudin and Kathryn Palmer in the ensemble. Both do very well, but Palmer is particularly expressive, standing out as both a flower seller and a maid, very much at ease on stage.
The entire cast seemed to be having a great time on the preview night I attended, good-humoredly negotiating through a couple of technical glitches, including a tough-to-light candle. And the main two sets, which go from being two sides of a London street corner to Higgins’ study when they are turned around and pushed together, are fabulously detailed and necessarily sturdy (the actors must travel to a balcony on one side, a landing on the other), but they must be quite heavy – every time the halves of it slowly came together to form the study, I released a small sigh of relief.
None of this detracted from the performance. In fact, these instances made it seem more intimate, and reminded me of one of the reasons live theatre is so fun to watch. It was a great show. I got lost in the words, music, sets, costumes (gorgeous!). The cast, crew and musicians all deserve kudos – as Pickering says to Higgins after the ball, “Absolutely fantastic.… You did it!”
For tickets ($26-$47) to My Fair Lady at Massey Theatre through April 26, visit masseytheatre.com or call 604-521-5050.