Who would have guessed that the most vivid and vibrant production of the 1999 -2000 New England theater season would be a two-piano revival of “My Fair Lady” at a nonprofit resident theater? This leapingly alive, unflinchingly aggressive take on the classic musical boasts a feisty Eliza, played by Rachel Warren, who is in danger of running roughshod over Timothy Crowe’s Henry Higgins, rather than vice-versa. If director Amanda Dehnert’s vitally alive take on “My Fair Lady” can’t be accused of subtlety as it hurtles around the stage with hearty exhilaration, its sheer hurly-burly theatricality demands to be admired.
Dehnert and her designer David Jenkins have placed their production on a raised wooden platform atop the Trinity Rep Upstairs Theater’s thrust stage. Two grand pianos at center stage are integral parts of the set and action. Behind the pianos are several stepped rows of seats in which the ensemble often sits while waiting to leap into the action. Most of the costume changes take place onstage, and there’s a particularly witty moment when, just before the “Ascot Gavotte,” the ladies and gentlemen’s elegant hats are suddenly dropped from the flies for them to don.
On one side of the stage is the alehouse from which Fred Sullivan Jr.’s spry and unusually youthful Alfred P. Doolittle is regularly evicted. On the other is a wrought-iron flight of stairs and catwalk. Flickering street lamps add to the London atmosphere, as do footlights. Because there are no set changes, the production moves forward with unstoppable force, considerably helped by director Dehnert and choreographer Kelli Wicke Davis’ nonstop movement. The production’s few quiet moments are all the more potent because of this, even if the general approach might be faulted for allowing a bit too much shouting and stomping.
Warren’s Eliza, who is aggressive right from the start, is certainly a fully rounded characterization. She is sweetly wistful in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” almost vicious in “Just You Wait” and properly triumphant in her embassy ball waltz with Karpathy (Greg Schanuel). Eliza is definitely the focal point of this “My Fair Lady.”
Not that Timothy Crowe’s Henry Higgins is anything less than deft and assured. But he doesn’t have quite enough of the musical-theater glamour the role really requires, something that Warren does have. William Damkoehler’s Col. Pickering is perhaps too deferential. And the interpretations of Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins don’t really work (Janice Duclos is too put-upon as the former, Barbara Meek too unvaryingly grand as the latter).
But these are comparatively minor weaknesses. One of the production’s most surprising strengths is its Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who is far less bland than usual. This is because of the director’s amusing take on the role, ably abetted by Michael Hance, who plays it. Here is a chubby Freddy who is likely to suddenly pop up from behind the seats where he’s been napping, and who just happens to have a superb singing voice.
The large ensemble works splendidly as both hearty dancers and a gorgeous vocal chorus as they are woven in and out of the action, two of them playing violins at times to add to the musical texture and sentiment. The two-piano version of the score is highly musical and richly played by Jay Atwood and Tim Robertson. The period costumes, both lower and upper class, are more than adequate.
This high-energy “My Fair Lady” has been one of Trinity Rep’s biggest critical and box office successes, and has been extended twice.