The role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady on Broadway helped make Julie Andrews a household name – and now Broadway star and Long Island native Jennifer Hope Wills brings the character of Eliza to life in a stunning way at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, playing through June 24.
Set in London in 1912, we meet Eliza Doolittle, a lowborn, poor commoner. She sells flowers to the gentry in Covent Garden, who take pity on her. Eliza is dirty, hair unkempt, clothes tattered and worn, with a Cockney accent that sets your ear on edge – especially if your ear belongs to Professor Henry Higgins, played by Jamie Jackson. Higgins is an upper-class gentleman, a phonetician who claims he can tell the origins of a man by the manner of his speech. When he hears Eliza speak, he cannot contain his disdain and with his friend the jovial Colonel Pickering he makes a bet. Higgins claims he can take the “wretch” Eliza and turn her into the belle of London, and Pickering calls him on it.
As the “rough” Eliza, Hope Wills is still charming and wins your heart from her first almost incoherent growls and shrieks, and as she lapses into one of my favorites “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” with her Loverly Quartet we begin to see that Eliza Doolittle was meant for much more than selling flowers – she has big dreams, a big heart and gritty determination. As Eliza, Hope Wills is a stunning portrayal of the character that Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn famously brought to life on stage and in film respectively. Not only does Hope Wills possess the beauty of Eliza, her voice is clean and clear, sweet and crisp – even with the twang of her Cockney accent – pre-Higgins-style-makeover.
When Eliza finally agrees to participate, Higgins ruthlessly throws her into a merciless routine of diction and pronunciation. He tries for days with no results – Eliza’s Cockney is just about as stubborn as she is! A funny series of events – and phrases you will find yourself repeating (“The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”) and some flirty bickering between Higgins and Eliza, until finally, the Cockney disappears. The celebration that ensues leaves Eliza breathless and giddy – with excitement over her achievement, yes, but we are privy to the bigger picture – the girl falling in love with the boy. In
the fun yet touching number “I Could Have Danced All Night,” we realize it’s no longer a game or a bet for Eliza.
Eliza’s first romp into high society, the Ascot horse race, is surely the funniest scene. Both Higgins and Colonel Pickering are on edge, and Eliza appears beautiful, poised and charming in her black-and-white ensemble. She proceeds to speak as Higgins has taught her, but the subjects are so unseemly for high society that it borderlines on hysterical.
Eliza’s final test is set at the Embassy Ball, where she’s resplendent in white – she even takes the breath away from the gruff Professor Higgins, who has been fighting his growing attraction to Eliza. Eliza, the lady, has passed the test – but now the test of wills between she and Higgins begins.
Amidst all this, we have the comic relief of poor smitten Freddy, played by David Bryant Johnson, who is boyishly sweet in his declaration of love for the beautiful Eliza. Eliza’s drunken father Alfie Doolittle played by Steve Luker regales us with head-bobbing numbers “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and “Get me to the Church on Time.”
By the end, you’re rooting for Eliza and Higgins, hoping that love conquers all. Eliza has shed all traces of her Cockney accent, and speaks with a singsong British accent that’s just as charming as her former brogue. The notes she hit throughout gave me goose bumps, and there were times when I was watching her that she almost morphed into Julie Andrews, only better because she was right there in front of me. With Hope Wills leading this cast, Gateway has yet another successful show to be proud of.
It’s not over, thank goodness. Gateway’s season continues with The Rat Pack is Back, June 27 – July 14; 9 to 5, July 18-Aug 4 at The Patchogue Theater, and Phantom of the Opera,
Aug 22- Sept 9.
Gateway Playhouse, 215 South Country Road, Bellport. 631-286-0555, www.gatewayplayhouse.com