The historic Town Theatre building, nearly a century in age, houses the oldest continuously running community theatre program in the United States. This weekend, that stage came alive as the Town Theatre opened their 98th season with My Fair Lady. A gorgeous, era-appropriate set was designed, one that was both compact and also visually pleasing, consisting of a fully functional library balcony and spiral staircase, a dazzling faux stained glass window, and a magnificent bar that cleverly swiveled out when needed. But what most captivated those in attendance this weekend was the new life breathed into the well-known characters of a classic musical.
To a modern day audience, My Fair Lady has many moments that could potentially make a viewer uncomfortable. Its heroine, flower girl Eliza Doolittle, is threatened with belt lashes and broomstick whippings and called a “barbarous wretch” and a “heartless guttersnipe.” Decades ago, audiences chuckled as her linguistic mentor, Henry Higgins, posed the question, “Should we ask this baggage to sit down, or should we throw her out the window?”
But in the Town Theatre’s present adaptation, actor Jeremy Hansard seemed to not only ask character Colonel Pickering that question, but the entire audience in general. He performed the role of stuffy, misogynistic Higgins with a stern self-awareness, keenly understanding how his character would appear to a modern audience. “He’s not a nice guy,” Hansard acknowledged after the show. “He is so contrary, and so different from who I am, that it’s actually fun to get in his head and play someone so unlikable. But it’s also very exhausting.”
Every factor of the performance complemented the others, even the costumes; the long gowns shifted against the stage floor in rhythm to the music, and Eliza’s shimmering dress echoed the radiance her character displayed as the story progressed. The breathtaking Embassy ball scene had slow, delicate choreography to best flaunt the transformations the characters had made.
Stealing the show on opening weekend was actor Will Moreau, who played Eliza’s gin-loving father, Alfred. Wide-eyed and animated, Moreau acted with a gleeful zest reminiscent of early vaudeville theatre. His delightfully warm performance provided much comic relief from some of the show’s now unnerving gender and class dynamics. The number “With a Little Bit of Luck” was performed with such jolliness by Moreau, and with such endearingly moving harmonies from his character’s drinking companions, that the audience members all mimicked the actor’s unrelenting grin. Theatregoers could not help but clap and dance along in their seats as Moreau completely gave himself over to his character on opening weekend.
“Musical theatre is where all forms of art come together—the visual craft of designing the set and the costumes right down to the beads and the colors, the storytelling, music, dancing, all the components blend to share a classic story,” said Moreau. “Although this is set in London at the turn of the century, it is a universal story about how possibilities are endless…we all learn and change.”
While Alfred Doolittle danced and drank and Henry Higgins scolded and yelled, phoneticist Colonel Pickering offered a gentler male role to complement Eliza’s journey. Actor Bill DeWitt made the character of Colonel Pickering unavoidably likeable this weekend, breathing both kindness and wisdom into his performance. “[My Fair Lady] is a study into the class system,” Dewitt acknowledged. “This show is a tremendous blend of iconic music and some very good comedy, but it also has a deep undertone of trying to understand who we are. Eliza transforms from a flower girl to a socialite at the Embassy Ball, but she is not a different person. What is different is the way people see her.”
And the way people saw Eliza Doolittle this weekend was quite unique. Actress Kerri Roberts was a thrilling, feminist hero, jumping onto a chair and wielding an umbrella stand while belting out the infuriated number “Just You Wait.” She showcased her character’s vulnerability in the compelling “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and caused audience members to wipe away impressed, moved tears as her high notes resounded through the auditorium angelically in “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Even under the pretenses of her training to be a well-spoken lady, Roberts maintained Eliza’s fiery independence and enjoyment of life in the scene at the Ascot Racecourse, shouting at the top of her lungs, “Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!”
For Roberts, dancing and singing her way through My Fair Lady was less about being the belle of the ball, and more about sending a message to the crowd. “Last week, our director, Allison [McNeely], said to me, ‘I want little girls who watch this to look up to you.’ And I had to ask myself, are they looking up to me because they see Eliza in a pretty gown at the Embassy Ball, and then they see that she stays with an abusive man? No, I want them to watch this and realize, a girl can decide to do anything she puts her mind to.”
The Town Theatre’s opening weekend performances of My Fair Lady highlighted that yearn for change and acceptance; it was showcased well in the wide-eyed, gleaming innocence of Eliza’s suitor Freddy, played by the young and vibrant Jeremy Reasoner. Reasoner caused audience members to swoon with his rendition of “On the Street Where You Live.” But the audience was alive throughout the entire musical this weekend, humming and singing along to beloved songs and gazing on with delight as the Town gave an energetic interpretation of a classic play.
“The Town is so unique, and it is a part of local history. Coming to a small theatre and seeing something on stage, you really hear the other people in the audience laugh and cry around you,” Hansard said. “When you come to see a show at the Town, you actually get to be part of something.”
My Fair Lady runs at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with a 3 p.m. matinee performance on Sunday, until September 25. Tickets are available online at www.towntheatre.com.
Pictured: (Left to Rright )Bill Dewitt (Colonel Pickering); Kerri Roberts (Eliza Doolittle); Bob Blencowe and Chris Kruzner (Harry and Jamie); Will Moreau (Alfred Doolittle); Jeremy Hansard (Henry Higgins); and Jeremy Reasoner (Freddy Eynsford-Hill). Photo by Allison Willingham.