What a way to close out a season.
My Fair Lady at Bay Street Theater is surprising and different. The show utilizes a two-piano arrangement and a smaller cast that distills the play down to its core characters and a small ensemble of actors who play different parts. The unit set is able to simultaneously convey an opera house, a dank street corner, a professor’s study, a racetrack and more, with very few objects or furniture ever being moved. As the apex of Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts’ 25th anniversary mainstage season, this Michael Arden-directed production of My Fair Lady is as good as it gets.
Taking this pageant-style musical comedy and reducing its cast, set and musical arrangement to fit the space has resulted in what is quite possibly the most powerful version of this Lerner & Loewe classic. Its songs, many of which have come to define the Great American Songbook, are still stunning. The classic story is funny and touching, with spectacular performances that dazzle and are complemented by the brilliant sets and lighting.
In My Fair Lady, street urchin flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Kelli Barrett), a cockney-speaking young woman from the slums of Covent Garden, meets Professor Henry Higgins (Paul Alexander Nolan) and Colonel Pickering (reliably terrific Bay Street vet Howard McGillin, who appeared in last season’s Grey Gardens), who make a bet that they can teach her to be a “proper lady” in six months time and pass her off as a member of the upper class. Eliza agrees, wanting to be able to work in a flower shop and rise above her desperate situation, which includes getting out of her ne’er-do-well father’s life (the talented John O’Creagh). As Eliza and Henry begin their “lessons,” both get more than they bargained for and begin to develop an alternately adversarial and close friendship. But Eliza fears what her life will become when she’s done “becoming a lady” and the two are forced to face difficult truths about themselves and each other.
The performances are fabulous, with crackling chemistry between Barrett and Nolan leading the charge. The fantastic singing voices of both leads make for great interpretations of classic songs like “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” while their acting—which so easily could have been played broadly and predictably as archetypes—makes the clever script shine. In fact, a late confrontation between Barrett and Noland is so raw and explosive it appropriately feels like a serious drama.
It would be a disservice not to mention Bobby Conte Thornton, who literally stops the show as the dim-witted, lovesick Freddy, a potential love interest for Eliza. With his fantastic rendition of “On the Street Where You Live,” as well as his wide-eyed line delivery, Thornton is an absolute find, and we hope to see much more of him in the future.
Arden’s direction deserves much praise as well, not only in the clever staging but also in his interpretation of the material. The ending, while not changing the script or music, is a new take on the show’s conclusion, giving the show—previously criticized for its sexist messages and patriarchal take on love and marriage—a modern, smarter message. Here, Arden explores whether Higgins truly created Eliza as the perfect woman—or if that woman was always there, just waiting for her chance to come out and be free. It’s up to interpretation, but the answer will be pretty clear by the end.
Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, presents My Fair Lady through September 4. For tickets and more information, call 631-725-9500 and visit baystreet.org.