EDWARD HIGHTOWER MAKES THE PERFECT HENRY HIGGINS, THAT ARROGANT LOVABLE BULLY - WHO BRINGS ELIZA THAT MEMORABLE LOVERLY
This has been the fall season to celebrate Lerner and Loewe’s classic LADY as I have spent time with Higgins and Dolittles on two stages this year. MY FAIR LADY opens Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre’s sixth season, and is now on stage only through Nov 20th at the Firehouse Arts Center in Pleasanton Ca. One of the pleasures of seeing a classic Lerner and Loewe musical such as MY FAIR LADY is seeing how it can be restaged or even reimagined some 60 years after it opened on Broadway. And my opportunity to see director, Daren AC Carollo’s second version of this polished production. He takes very few liberties with the material keeping the classic charm of Shaw’s original themes. And that’s a good thing because the material is so perfect all by itself. Carollo says he thinks “the intimate setting of the Firehouse Arts Center is the ideal space to help the audiences be swept up by the story and the music, while his production returns focus to the original "Pygmalion" tale and the themes of respect and equality”.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s iconic play, PYGMALION, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical about Eliza Doolittle has been billed as the “perfect musical”. The story of a cockney flower girl, Eliza, who learns the proper way to speak English by Professor Henry Higgins. It won six Tonys, setting a Broadway record for a long run and, of course, the memorable film version with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn that won Ten Oscars. The 1912 fog of London is marvelous under the capable direction of Carollo, it is an elegant MY FAIR LADY. The sold out opening night crowd was impressed by an awesome talented cast of 18 actors who swept them away on a simple but very elegant set designed by Patrick Brandon, framed by a superb harpist, Jessica Schaeffer, and music director Brett Strader on a chandeliered grand piano.
In this production, Eliza is played by the exceptional Josselyn O'Neill, and she handles her flower girl with professional aplomb, even though the “r” sound is barely noticeable in her tender rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Dialect coach and local actor Rachel Powers has done a masterful job helping some of the cast develop upper-class English dialect. However, her work is at its best helping Eliza slowly change her speech from cockney to upper-class English. O’Neilll is a properly rough and tumble gal as the early Eliza, joking and dancing with the other denizens of old London. And she shows some real spirit in “Just You Wait,” her rant against the dominating presence of ‘enry ‘iggins. One of the iconic songs is a gem “The Rain In Spain” when Liza finally drops her cockney accent. O’Neill is at her best when Eliza is transformed as a proper lady, she shows off her powerful singing voice in the amusingly repetitive “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Once this Eliza gets her proper tone, her timing with Henry Higgins is foolproof.
Local favorite Edward Hightower is Henry Higgins, and he brings a tense, lovable , rapid fire, no nonsense approach to the role. Hightower’s knock out performance is quite amusing throughout, especially in “I’m An Ordinary Man.” His voice is strong and perfect for the bond that grows between Higgins and Eliza. Hightower’s machine gun arrogance is harsh but he steals the show. This is the best version of Higgins I have seen on a Nor Cal stage. He has a great character arc that starts with courtesy, then becomes distant and uncaring to the final act where he performs the classic “I Have Grown Accustomed to Her Face”. Hightower has the perfect acting voice for his Higgins with a range of emotions that makes him more intimidating in his arrogance but sincere in his great love of language and his honest concern for Eliza.
His stage sophistication as the domineering teacher that in the end is captured by his dear Eliza is wonderful. I know I just gave this same honor to the brilliant DC Scarpelli, but I must also state that Hightower is one of the best reasons to see this MY FAIR LADY. He is the classic Higgins and dressed in detailed, dapper, earth tone costumes he is a charming lead who drives this musical. It is a sure bet under Carollo’s direction both of his Henry Higgins are tour de forces of Bay Area theatre. Both O’Neill and Hightower are at their best. When Eliza is transformed as a “proper lady” she is a knock out; her sense of joy an uncommon sweetness and beautiful voice are outstanding.
There are particular delights in the smaller roles. Ron Pickett has never been better than he is as Eliza’s scoundrel father, Alfred P. Doolittle. His rendition of “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” augmented by energetic London country dance numbers, choreographed by the skillful Christina Lazo, are gems. Her ensemble highlighted by the young Max Desantis who steals many of the dance numbers includes Steve Allhoff, Matt Busbee, Rebecca Davis, Ryan Henry, Matthew Kelly, Maria Mikheyenko, Aimee Roylance, Claire Shepard, and Morgan Stinson.
Smooth tenor, Nathaniel Rothrock as Freddy loads plenty of yearning into “On the Street Where You Live,” making his reprise romantic and entertaining. The adorable, honorable Laurie Strawn manages to win the audience with some laughs from a frisky stern role as Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother. Strawn’s performance captures Mrs. Higgins' sharp wit as well as the warmth of her growing affection for Eliza.
The pro Lee Strawn as Colonel Pickering, is that type of a supporting actor that provides ballast for the entire evening. Strawn brings the right amount of charm and care to the role of the sidekick. Suzie Shepard as the housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, has the perfect amount of compassion and charm. Her dry wit gets great laughs, and Maria Mikheyenko and Matthew Kelly as the snooty socialites from Ascot are both superb. Director Carollo’s cast of 18 impressive actors are beautifully realized characters. Patrick Brandon’s open set design easily sets the grand piano and harp on stage with a simple set that takes us from the streets of London to Higgins’ studio with ease. Brandon’s setting is kept open and he uses shadows and projections to create the interior of the grand home. The steps that lead to the upper part of the home add an impressive look to the Higgins’ study. Margaret daSilva’s authentic costumes keep the old London look alive and the gowns for Eliza rich with character and jewels. Eliza’s bearing as she sings “The Embassy Waltz” and “You Did It” is graceful and noble in a memorable long, sleek gown.
Hightower and O’Neill are sparkling leads brimming with talent and wit in their performances. They are heartwarming in their duet, “Without You”. Michael Oesch’s light design provides the old London atmosphere. I also admire his use of graphic lighting that adds so much mood and color character for the windows and hanging chandelier. Karl Haller’s sound design captures the company well and O’Neill’s voice scores across the Firehouse Arts Center. The leads all have brilliant voices that are highlighted well with Haller’s sound. The props by Devon LaBelle include some classic old gramophones, while Mr. Higgins’ desk is covered in linguistic charts and drawers full of whisky. London umbrellas and canes for the Ascot Waltz all work well and add to the texture of the production.
This “LADY” is a celebration worthy of the 60th anniversary and is sure to be the best way to begin your fall theatre season, if you can get a ticket. Edward Hightower gives the best performance of the fall season as Higgins. The show has sold well and only a few seats remain. If you haven’t seen this musical in a few years - it is time to return to Prof. Higgins’ library and see this beautiful show. PCRT is set for a sell out 6th season including ANYTHING GOES that opens January 28th, and EVITA opening April 29th. MY FAIR LADY sparkles with talent and excellent performances and you are sure to be humming “Get Me To The Church On Time”. This production of MY FAIR LADY reminds me of how good theater can be. The sold out opening night audience were on their feet for a well deserved standing ovation. This type of treat rarely comes our way.
Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre Presents
MY FAIR LADY
Book Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe,
Directed by Daren A.C. Carollo
Music Director Brett Strader, Choreography Christina Lazo
Through November 20
FIREHOUSE ARTS CENTER
4444 Railroad Ave
Pleasanton, CA 94566
2 hours 40 min one intermission
Tickets: $19 - $40
Tickets on sale at: www.firehousearts.org or www.pcrtproductions.org
Photos by Berenice Ku
Eliza Doolittle:Josselyn O’Neill, Henry Higgins:Edward Hightower*, Colonel Pickering:Lee Strawn*, Alfred P. Doolittle:Ron Pickett, Freddy Eynsford-Hill: Nathaniel Rothrock, Mrs. Pearce:Suzie Shepard, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill: Sarah Sloan, Mrs. Higgins:Laurie Strawn
Ensemble: Steve Allhoff, Matt Busbee, Rebecca Davis, Max DeSantis, Ryan Henry, Matthew Kelly, Maria Mikheyenko, Aimee Roylance, Claire Shepard, Morgan Stinson