The vocabulary, timbre, and tone of London flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Gail Bennett) are all — in the words of language-snob Professor Henry Higgins (Jefferson Mays) — “deliciously low.” Like a linguistic fish and chips, say, seeping all their delectable grease and vinegar into the newsprint. Another bloke might savor Eliza’s salty, tart verbal delights. But Professor Higgins, an aristocrat and self-appointed guardian of the “majesty and grandeur of the English language,” is more excited about remaking her in his own image. That means cultivating flavors more suited to bone china than last week’s London Times, and Eliza proves extraordinarily adaptive in Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, the classic musical adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion. The period comedy receives a beautifully sung, buoyantly acted, and lavishly appointed production at the Ogunquit Playhouse, under the direction of Shaun Kerrison.
On a bet with his fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (Conrad John Schucht), Higgins takes Eliza in at his fashionable address, and proceeds to make “a lady” of the Cockney hellcat. Pronunciation and posture exercises follow ad nauseam, along with plenty of Eliza’s rages and the disapproving skepticism of Mrs. Pierce (Barbara Marineau), who heads the domestics of the house. But soon Eliza’s wit and vivacity win everybody over, notably including Higgins’s wonderfully acerbic mum (Nancy Dussault), who barely tolerates her ill-mannered son. In fact, Mrs. Higgins is party to Eliza’s first “public appearance,” at the boringly proper society horse races, and it’s one of the most delightful and telling scenes in the play: After all the aristocrats have aped each other’s poses and chit-chat, Eliza’s raucous tale of how her mother was “done in” for a hat — told in impeccable upper-class English — is utterly enchanting.
As is, in Bennett’s hands, Eliza herself. Slim, elfin, and radiant, with dark hair, fair skin, and expressive eyes and movements, Bennett is manna to the eye well before she’s all dressed up. Her voice work is immaculate, clear, and nimble; and as Eliza she conveys not just the girl’s brio but also her innate intelligence, with ever increasing subtlety and watchfulness. Costume designer Gregory Poplyk garbs her in elegant Edwardian styles, and in Eliza’s triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball, clad entirely in white and diamonds, she is a breathtaking vision.
Those who behold, scold, and covet her make up a lively cast of personalities. Mays’s Higgins, a grown-up boy with limited social skills and nearly zero capacity for self-reflection, is thoroughly, infuriatingly unlikable. His thoughtlessly paternalistic tones and gestures toward Eliza aren’t villainous, but worse — completely unconscious of what an elitist jerk he is. As his friend and colleague Colonel Pickering, Schucht’s gruff but genuine compassion plays nicely against him.
|My Fair Lady | by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe | Directed by Shaun Kerrison | Produced by the Ogunquit Playhouse | through September 6 | 207.646.5511|
Then there’s the scene-stealing Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s unapologetic rascal of a dad, played with abandon by Tim Jerome. What a hoot! The old guy lurches about the streets, grabbing bottoms and swilling ale. His honest debauchery is marvelously refreshing against the tight-lipped hypocrisy of (some of) the swells. He also gets to embody the quintessential irony of “improving” oneself: When Higgins, on a devilish whim, gets Doolittle signed up to give speeches for a morality society, the old hornball finds himself in money, a suit, and the inescapable tyranny of the middle class.