There is a wellspring of acting and singing talent in the Cardinal Stage Company’s production of “My Fair Lady,” now playing at the historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington through Sunday, June 26.
And thanks to director Randy White, operating in a college community filled with superb resources, this production features a top-notch cast in an ambitious production that went far beyond expectations.
A musical adaptation of “Pygmalion,” George Bernard Shaw’s classic comedy, “My Fair Lady,” with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, premiered on Broadway in 1956 and later won six Tonys. It starred Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle.
Harrison played Higgins once again in the multi-Oscar-winning 1964 film version, but Audrey Hepburn, whose singing was voiced by Marni Nixon, was chosen to play Eliza because it was thought she’d be a bigger box-office draw.
“My Fair Lady” recounts the story of Higgins, a phoneticist, who plucks a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle off the streets of London after making a bet with an acquaintance. The wager states that within six months, Higgins will perfect Eliza’s speech so she can pass as a proper lady.
Recognizing the obvious challenges faced by actors who play roles that are so heavily identified with those who originated them, Chris Vettel as Higgins and Chloe Sabin as Eliza both did an excellent job of making these lead characters their own.
Seen late in the run Thursday night, it was obvious the two actors had become more than relaxed in their roles, making for a chemistry that was highly believable.
Unlike Harrison, Vettel (who has sung opera) can certainly carry a tune – adding a whole refreshing new dimension to this Higgins as he sang “I’m An Ordinary Man” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
The handsome Vettel’s acting performance was also colored by fine detail, nuance and a crispness that was perfect for his portrayal of the pompous, emotionally stunted and sometimes cruel Higgins. It’s tough to make likeable someone with those flaws, but Vettel managed to do so. Also impeccable was Vettel’s English accent, as well as his carriage.
The diminutive Sabin also brought freshness to her role as Eliza. Providing her character with just the right mixture of naiveté, ambition and spunkiness before her transformation, she later conveyed elegance, dignity and integrity, once Eliza achieves self-esteem. Employing a pleasing soprano voice, Sabin was particularly beguiling during “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
Though a credit for a dialect coach was not listed in the show’s printed program, it is presumed that Sabin (as well as most in the cast) benefited from someone’s tutelage because, like her character, she mimicked extremely well while speaking in both her Cockney and proper English accents.
Considering the fact that Robert Hay-Smith, who plays Pickering, was born in London, it may well be that he worked with his castmates on their elocution. Another standout performer, Hay-Smith was ideal in his role as Higgins’ sometimes scattered straight man, who is protective of Eliza and extends to her kindness and compassion, while serving as a buffer between her and her unfeeling mentor.
One of the highlights of the show and a joy to witness were the effervescent trio of Vettel, Sabin and Hay-Smith frolicking on stage as their characters celebrate Eliza’s epiphany in “The Rain in Spain.”
Also turning out a notable performance was Mike Price as Eliza’s unscrupulous father Doolittle. Price’s timing and talent for physical comedy were perfectly suited for his character’s moment in the spotlight in “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Possessing an exquisitely toned tenor voice, John McLaughlin also was ideally suited for his role as the sweet, wide-eyed Freddy, who is smitten by Eliza, pining for her in “On the Street Where You Live”
Deserving of praise as well are the show’s music director, Sue Sweeney, and choreographer Esther Widlanski, who molded and shaped both the vocals and movement of the highly effective chorus (and the Cockney quartet in particular). Wearing Angie Burkhardt-Malone’s striking black-and-white costumes, all were especially impressive in “Ascot Gavotte.”
Admittedly, a large-scale orchestra always goes a long way towards enhancing a musical production. However the two-piano version featured by Cardinal Stage does provide for a more intimate appreciation of Loewe’s music score. Adding to the success of this version is the high quality of performance provided by pianists Evan Reese and Ryan O’Connell.
For tickets and information for “My Fair Lady,” visit www.cardinalstage.org or the Buskirk-Chumley Theater Box Office, 114 E. Kirkwood Avenue, Bloomington, IN 47404.