The Globe and Mail's review:
A loverly Lady
By KATE TAYLOR
Thursday, May 30, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R2
As the lights come up on the scene at the Ascot races in the new production of My Fair Lady that opened at the Stratford Festival on Tuesday, a sigh of amused recognition may pass your lips. Designer Debra Hanson wryly tips her hat to all that has come before her by reproducing the same iconic black-and-white costumes that audiences will remember from the movie. (The racegoers were supposedly in mourning for Edward VII.) But as a bright Stratford cast begins to sing, the joke about the gap between the enthusiastic lyrics -- "gripping, absolutely ripping . . ." and their languid deadpan is free of any such ironic consciousness; it is just immediately funny.
Here, artistic director Richard Monette successfully cashes in on the familiarity of the beloved My Fair Lady, first created from Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion by the Broadway team of composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner in 1956, while also rendering it fresh for audiences new and old. It's not an easy feat, and this ultimately entertaining production takes a while to achieve it: It opens in a Covent Garden market in which the Cockney accents are as patently false as the smears of dirt on the barrow boys' and flower girls' faces.
You would think that if you were staging a musical about English pronunciation, you might hire a dialect coach, but none is credited in the Stratford program. Cynthia Dale's rather insipid version of Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl whom linguist Henry Higgins turns into a lady, can't speak plausible Cockney and, once transformed, follows Margaret Thatcher's lead and produces one of those phony, self-invented English accents. Meanwhile, James Blendick's slyly twinkling version of her father, the unabashed moral relativist and dustman Alfred P. Doolittle, amusing though he is, seems to be struggling to suppress the upper-crust intonations that the actor can rely on for most of his Stratford work.
Of course, Dale can sing very prettily, which she does on such favourites as Wouldn't It Be Loverly and I Could Have Danced All Night. But Colm Feore can sing too and, as he jettisons the tradition of making Higgins speak his songs in favour of a full musical performance, he emerges as the real star here, with very solid backing from Barry MacGregor's note-perfect rendition of the sympathetic English gent in the role of Colonel Pickering.
With a bit of that Gallic flare still clinging to his coattails after the recent Trudeau television series, Feore is young enough to make a plausible love interest and energetic enough to make Higgins's arrogance not merely comic but also counterbalanced by evident intellectual force. Energetic enough? It's an understatement, as he bounds up and down the two high flights of library stairs with which Hanson has provided him. You can only agree with Eliza when she describes him as "a motor bus, all bounce and go" and question commentator Robert Harris when he writes in the program notes that a fully sung Higgins would be a bad mistake.
The only one who can beat Feore for manic energy is his own wife, not the fictional Eliza but the real-life choreographer Donna Feore. She contributes some rousing athletic moves, especially in Get Me to the Church, a number spectacularly executed by the company in another example of successful refreshing.
Of course, you don't want to make Henry Higgins too winsomely contemporary -- a modern audience has got to remain in some fantastical old place if it's going not only to laugh at songs like Hymn to Him ("Why can't a woman be more like a man . . .") but also to embrace the romantic conclusion that Lerner tacked onto Shaw's play, showing Eliza submissively returning to this ferocious misogynist. Here, Monette and his cast get it just right, successfully spritzing up the nostalgia.
My Fair Lady continues at the Festival Theatre to Nov. 10, with Colm Feore as Higgins to July 13. He will be replaced by Geraint Wyn Davies from July 14-Sept. 14 and by Richard Monette from Sept. 18-Nov. 10. For information: 1-800-567-1600.