Bay Street’s ‘My Fair Lady’ is great end-of-summer fare: Review

Credit: Bay Street Theater/Lenny Stucker

Credit: Bay Street Theater/Lenny Stucker

In this presidential election year when issues related to class, race and gender are all rearing their heads — often in the ugliest of ways — there’s a lot to love about sitting in a dark theater and taking in a good old-fashioned musical like “My Fair Lady.”

Turns out there are a lot of parallels as well.

Bay Street Theater’s current production of “My Fair Lady,” which is directed by Tony Award nominee Michael Arden, features a talented, large and lively cast who remind us why so many of us adored this play in our youth, even if we only got to see the movie version on the telly. Seeing a live production of this classic tale of transformation is a true treat and this family-friendly gem not only brings back memories of a much-loved musical through some great song and dance numbers, but it also offers a pointed lesson on class distinction and prejudice that we’d be well to heed in this volatile year of 2016.

Fortunately, those of you who haven’t yet made the trip to Sag Harbor to see this show have been granted a reprieve. Bay Street Theater has decided to extend the run of “My Fair Lady” through Labor Day — so now there’s no excuse.

With book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, “My Fair Lady” is set in 1912 London and is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.” The musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1956, tells the story of phoneticist Professor Henry Higgins (played by Paul Alexander Nolan) who bets his friend, linguist Colonel Pickering (Howard McGillin), that within six months time he can transform the lowest class Cockney guttersnipe into a socialite who speaks the queen’s English well enough to pass muster at the highest social event of the season.

The deal is sealed and that target is, of course, Eliza Doolittle (Kelli Barrett), a tough talking and feisty flower seller whom Henry Higgins stumbles across in London’s Covent Square. Within short order Eliza is whisked off the streets and moved into Professor Higgins upscale London home where his housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Karen Murphy) is instructed to bathe and clothe the young woman in a manner befitting the station to which he aspires her to attain. Lessons in speech and etiquette are to follow, and while Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering are absolutely delighted by the challenge Eliza poses, Mrs. Pearce alone is rightfully wary, fearful of the responsibility the two men are assuming. She wonders what will happen to Eliza once they are done with this play thing, which is exactly what she is to them.

Therein lies the moral and social conundrum that is “My Fair Lady.” Soon, Eliza’s role as an experimental object to be bent to the will of two highly educated and manipulative men offers painfully familiarly reminders of how the powerless, poor and uneducated in society become the pawns of those who have something to gain from them — even those who start out with the best of intentions. Ultimately, Eliza’s resulting triumphs are not viewed as her own, and, as Mrs. Pearce feared, her brief education results in an uncertain fate, like powerless people the world over. That’s an easy lesson to forget while humming along to fairly light musical numbers like “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?”

Fortunately, despite her newly obtained refinement, Eliza never loses her spirited spark or her propensity to fight back — even after she finds herself falling hopelessly in love with the pompous Henry Higgins. Alas, he is too blinded by presumption and habit to recognize his feelings for Eliza until it is much too late. By that time, she has wisely moved on to Freddy Eynsford-Hill (well played by Bobby Conte Thornton), an earnest young man who loves her with all the rough edges intact.

Kelli Barrett offers a stellar performance as Eliza in this production and her transformation from guttersnipe to belle of the ball is great fun to watch. Ms. Barrett also has a marvelous voice and musical numbers like “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Just You Wait” reveal great depth, not only as a singer, but as a fine actress as well. Meanwhile, Paul Alexander Nolan plays Henry Higgins with terrific humor and pomposity. His entitled nature and the cluelessness with which he approaches the women in his life is laughably familiar, even in this day and age. Fortunately for him, Colonel Pickering is there to reinforce the old boys club philosophy and Howard McGillin’s portrayal of the linguist is spot on.

Also noteworthy is the fine performance by Carole Shelley, who plays Professor Higgins mother. She turns out to be a key ally for Eliza and her portrayal of an upper class woman frustrated by the male-dominated conventions of her time is powerful and effective. In addition, John O’Creagh’s turn as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s ne’er do well, money grubbing father, provides great comic relief. His big numbers “With A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me To The Church On Time” are two of the most memorable in the show and thanks to director Michael Arden’s great use of the Bay Street space, the large cast is able to evoke the energy and excitement of a big Broadway production complete with high flying dance moves.

Mr. Arden also uses the cast of 15 in a unique and clever way to broaden the social microscope under which Henry Higgins pokes and prods Eliza, turning her transformation into a literal scientific experiment taking place in front of a raised gallery filled with lab coated medical professionals taking notes. It’s all very clinical, sterile and totally heartless — yet extremely effective.

Rounding out the cast is Ryan Fitzgerald (who’s portrayal of Karpathy, a Hungarian linguist, is fleeting, yet hilarious), and fellow ensemble members Kyle Barisch, Jen Bechter, Roger E. Dewitt, Meghan LaFlam, Mickey Rafalski, Lindsay Roberts and Bradley Allan Zarr.

All in all, Bay Street Theater’s “My Fair Lady” adds up to great end-of-summer fare, but remember, you only have until September 4 to see this show. However, if you’re up for a trip it turns out that Julie Andrews, who starred in the original 1956 Broadway production, is directing “My Fair Lady” at the Opera House in Sydney, Australia. That show opens on August 30. Coincidentally, Ms. Andrews’ daughter and son-in-law, Emma Walton Hamilton and Stephen Hamilton, were co-founders of Bay Street Theater which is currently celebrating its 25th season.

Tickets for “My Fair Lady” are available by calling the Bay Street Theater box office at (631) 725-9500 or by visiting www.baystreet.org. The theater is located on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor and the production team includes choreographer Chase Brock, music director Adam Wachter, set designer Dane Laffrey, costume designers Dane Laffrey and Asta Bennie Hostetter, lighting designer Howell Binkley, sound designer Joel Abbot, props designer Andrew Diaz and hair, makeup and wig designer Meg Murphy.