Ellis Elevates Lyric Stage’s ‘My Fair Lady’ to Lofty Heights (5 Stars)

‘My Fair Lady’ – Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe; Based on the play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw; Directed by Scott Edmiston; Musical Direction by Catherine Stornetta; Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Sound design by Samuel Hanson. Presented by Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston through Oct. 11.

The Lyric Stage has gotten the jump on the fall theater season with its Labor Day opening of ‘My Fair Lady’, and my suggestion would be to get your tickets early for this terrific production of the Lerner and Loewe classic while you still can. Word-of-mouth alone should make this a tough ticket in the weeks ahead, largely on the strength of the incredible performance of its lead, Jennifer Ellis. She delivers a multi-layered performance that showcases so much more than her stunning beauty and amazing vocals, and elevates this well-staged production into the ‘must-see’ stratosphere for Boston theatergoers.
But Ellis is far from the only reason to see this show, because it’s one that works on a number of levels. As the musical begins, we see the stratification of depression-era 1930’s British society, with the well-to-do occupying the same streets as the great unwashed while barely recognizing them as fellow men and women. This is made painfully clear when Freddy – who later falls hard for Eliza 2.0 – thoughtlessly knocks her flowers into the gutter and scurries away without a second thought, despite her cries that his mishap would cost her a day’s wages. This Romney-esque attitude towards the lower class is further personified by Henry Higgins in the show’s opening number, “Why Can’t The English?”, as he points out Eliza to fellow linguist Colonel Pickering and sneers: “Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter; Condemned by every syllable she utters; By right she should be taken out and hung; For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.” As if her poor diction was society’s greatest problem.

For those scant few unfamiliar with the plot, Higgins wagers Pickering that he can make a lady of the impoverished flower girl by teaching her to speak properly, and pass her off at the Embassy Ball as a duchess – in just six months. But the real story lies with Higgins treatment of Eliza as a circus monkey rather than a human being with feelings, so it’s not your classic sitcom romance where the two pretend to hate each other to disguise their unspoken burning desire. Love is the furthest thing from his mind – quite literally – but not hers, as we discover in Ellis’ gorgeous rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night”.

Christopher Chew plays Higgins with such casually blatant indifference to Eliza as a living, breathing person that we can scarcely believe someone could be so unaware, but that’s what makes his characterization work so well. At times it’s as if he is observing the human race as some scientist would a new species of insect, rather than being a part of it. But we learn that it’s not just his attitude towards Eliza, but everyone that he feels is beneath him. His brief meeting with Eliza’s father (J.T. Turner in a masterfully scummy performance) is just as telling. But this is a musical, and people don’t come to musicals for the book – even one originally penned by George Bernard Shaw – and that’s another great strength of this show.

I had never actually seen the play or movie, but was intimately familiar with the score because my mother played the Rex Harrison/Julie Andrews cast recording endlessly when I was a boy, and this cast does it justice. (There are no stage mics used for this production, but in the intimate setting of the Lyric Stage, it works well.) Turner leads the street folk in a rollicking version of “With a Little Bit of Luck”, and Jared Troilo does a truly touching version of “On the Street Where You Live”, as the smitten Freddy. Chew, in addition to his understated but thoroughly convincing portrayal of Higgins, handles his relatively comic numbers well, and the show-closing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is heart-wrenching, even if you know how the story turns out.

But it is Ellis that brings this production to its lofty heights. As the “pre-lady” Eliza Doolittle, she displays the same comic gifts that many of us witnessed in “Out of Sterno” at the Gloucester Stage this summer (particularly during the opening scene and on “Just You Wait”), and as her character blossoms outwardly, we see the full range of emotions as she begins to fall for Higgins and realizes (wrongly) that her love will be unrequited. As a vocalist, Ellis may be unmatched among lead actresses now treading Boston’s stages, as anyone who saw Speakeasy’s “Far From Heaven”, or Lyric’s “City of Angels” last year can attest. Using a baseball analogy, she’s what scouts call a five-tool player, and all those tools are beautifully on display in this production. This is a great way to open the 2015-2016 season, so don’t miss it. For more information, go to: http://www.lyricstage.com/productions/production.cfm?ID=95