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“My Fair Lady,” that most scenically resplendent of golden-age Broadway spectacles, wouldn’t seem at first blush to be all that well suited to the small-scale approach that has lately become the most significant trend in American musical-theater production. But the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, whose compact 234-seat thrust-stage house can’t come anywhere near accommodating a traditional staging of “My Fair Lady,” has dared to perform the show on a unit set with a cast of 16, an orchestra of three and no amplification, and done so to immensely satisfactory effect. I’ve seen some fine “My Fair Ladies” in the past, but I’ve never seen one, not even Amanda Dehnert’s unforgettable school-of-Brecht 2013 Oregon Shakespeare Festival version, that did a better job of conveying the sweet romanticism that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe slipped into George Bernard Shaw’s skewering of the British class system. The results are—as Lerner might have put it—loverly.
The good news starts at the top: Jennifer Ellis is as strong an Eliza Doolittle as I’ve seen anywhere, including on screen. She sings beautifully and acts without exaggeration, leaving it to the score and script to work their magic. Christopher Chew hews to the same pattern as Henry Higgins, making no effort whatsoever to “do” Rex Harrison. He and Ms. Ellis personify the approach that Scott Edmiston, the director, describes in his program note: “We have shifted the focus from spectacle to character.” What you get, in other words, is not so much “My Fair Lady” as Shaw’s “Pygmalion” with songs—and what songs!
Small-scale stagings demand smart set designers, and Janie E. Howland fills the bill with a double-decker Art Deco set updated to 1938, the year in which Anthony Asquith filmed “Pygmalion.” The décor consists mainly of an old-fashioned gramophone, a glossy checkerboard dance floor and a trio of flats on which Professor Higgins’ phonetic alphabet is emblazoned….
“The Time of Your Life,” William Saroyan’s Pulitzer-winning 1939 play about a San Francisco dive bar whose eccentric but (mostly) lovable patrons are guilty of dreaming while drinking, is rarely mounted nowadays, partly because it has 27 characters and partly because Saroyan’s brand of screwball optimism is no longer in fashion. But it’s still a good show, and Chicago’s Artistic Home, a 45-seat theater whose self-declared mission is to perform plays in “an intimate space…to touch audiences who are increasingly distanced from human contact,” has given it a revival that is touching in all the right ways.
Much of the force of Kathy Scambiatterra’s staging is rooted in the fact that it’s being done in a plain-Jane black-box storefront theater that’s scarcely bigger than the end-of-the-road waterfront honky-tonk in which “The Time of Your Life” takes place. It’s so tiny that audience members must actually use the onstage restroom at intermission. The members of Ms. Scambiatterra’s jumbo cast take full advantage of their close proximity to the seats, giving low-key performances that counterbalance Saroyan’s penchant for flamboyant overstatement….
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To read my review of My Fair Lady, go here.
To read my review of The Time of Your Life, go here.
The trailer for Lyric Stage’s revival of My Fair Lady: