The size of orchestras for Broadway musicals has drastically declined over the years. During the golden age of Broadway in the 1950s an orchestra consisted of close to thirty musicians, while most today have only around a dozen, with synthesizers now substituting for several instruments. In regional and community theatres it can be even worse; sometimes just a few individuals are responsible for playing the score to a famous show, often resulting in a very thin sounding musical accompaniment. So it’s fortunate for theatre lovers in the Phoenix area that the Phoenix Theatre and Phoenix Symphony Orchestra have came together once again for their annual musical theatre collaboration and we had the opportunity to experience My Fair Lady with an orchestra of more than 50 musicians. Hearing the classic Lerner and Loewe score, with such familiar songs as “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” performed by a large, lush orchestra could easily transport even the most cynical person into a state of happiness. And with a cast that excels in portraying these classic characters, the whole evening culminated into a musical theatre lover’s dream.
As the fourth annual musical theatre collaboration between the Valley’s two arts organizations, the slightly abridged version of this well-known show was directed by Phoenix Theatre Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard, with the orchestra under the baton of guest conductor, and Tony Award winner, Ted Sperling, who has also led the Symphony in other concerts in the past. Barnard and Sperling worked together on last year’s collaboration, South Pacific, and their effectiveness in collaborating is quite apparent.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956. Set in London in 1912, Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, upon meeting phonetics expert and aficionado of the “science of speech” Professor Henry Higgins, wishes for the better life a more refined accent would deliver. The self-centered Higgins wagers a bet with his fellow linguistic professional Colonel Pickering that he can transform Eliza into a proper lady within six months just by teaching her the correct way to speak. The combination of Alan Jay Lerner’s book, with its sophisticated sense of humor, the instantly loveable characters of Eliza and Higgins, and the glorious score by Frederick Loewe elevated My Fair Lady into a smash hit, winning six Tony Awards including the top honor of Best Musical.
The success of any production of My Fair Lady rests on the relationship between Eliza and Higgins, and with the assured performances of Jeannie Shubitz and Terry Lee Gadaire this one didn’t disappoint. Shubitz’s lilting soprano easily let her songs soar and her well-honed acting skills painted a multi layered character that quickly showed Eliza’s aspirations for a better life, one that included having to put up with Higgins’ bullying. Shubitz also played the role of Eliza in the Arizona Broadway Theatre production in 2011. Gadaire’s Higgins, at first, might have come across as just a bit too harsh and selfish, but the amount of humor and wit he brought to Lerner’s famous dialogue and his rich singing voice created an engaging portrayal.
In the supporting cast, Mike Lawler was fine as Pickering, though just a little too low key for my taste, Chris Ericksen was appropriately lively as Eliza’s father, and Ian Christiansen brought a lovely sense of passion to Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the man who becomes enamored with Eliza. Christiansen achieved a nice sense of longing and desire in the show’s only real romantic ballad, “On the Street Where You Live.” Lisa Fogel as Higgins’ mother had perfect delivery of her lines and a superb amount of dry wit that easily received big laughs from the audience. Sally Jo Bannow gave housekeeper Mrs. Pearce a nice touch of compassion in her dealings with Eliza. The hardworking ensemble played multiple parts with ease and the male ensemble delivered some stirring and gorgeous harmonies.
Much more than just a concert version of the musical, the production featured an abundance of rich costumes and several set pieces. And, while the set was far from elaborate, a lovely painting of London featuring Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster that stretched across the back wall of Symphony Hall was quite effective in setting the scene for the show. Barnard also used the vast width of Symphony Hall to deliver nicely choreographed moments that added a richness to the many show stopping songs in the show. While the depth of the playing space was small, due to the space required for the large orchestra, the choreography for the many ensemble numbers, including “Poor Professor Higgins” and Doolittle’s two numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” was quite elaborate and added a rousing and varied amount of dance steps delivered expertly by the cast.
The two arts organizations have already announced a fifth collaboration for next May, with performances May 29th to the 31st, 2015. While they’ve not yet announced what musical they will be presenting, I’m sure it will be another excellent experience and just as successful as this year’s co-production of My Fair Lady.
My Fair Lady with the Phoenix Symphony and the Phoenix Theatre played three performances from May 30th to June 1st at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information for upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at www.phoenixsymphony.org. Upcoming production information at the Phoenix Theatre can be found at phoenixtheatre.com.
Conductor: Ted Sperling
Director / Phoenix Theatre Producing Artistic Director: Michael Barnard
Professor Henry Higgins: Terry Lee Gadaire
Colonel Hugh Pickering: Mike Lawler
Alfred P. Doolittle: Chris Ericksen
Mrs. Higgins/Mrs. Eynsford-Hill/ensemble: Lisa Fogel
Freddy Eynsford-Hill/ensemble: Ian Christiansen
Eliza Doolittle: Jeannie Shubitz
Mrs. Pearce/ensemble: Sally Jo Bannow
Male ensemble: Logan Mitchell, Lucas Coatney, Jonathan Furedy
Female ensemble: Trisha Hart Distworth, Cydney Trent, Kaitlynn Kleinman