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My Fair Lady

In Providence, Iris Fanger learns how the rain in Spain behaves, and what musical-theater heaven is like, at Trinity Rep.

Rachael Warren as Eliza Doolittle
in Trinity Rep's My Fair Lady
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
There's a moment near the end of Trinity Rep's My Fair Lady when Amanda Dehnert, the highly intuitive director who has mounted the musical as if it were a prism refracting light, comes close to George Bernard Shaw's sentiments about love and marriage. After Eliza says good-bye to Professor Higgins, she walks out, slamming the door behind her. Dehnert has consciously echoed the finality of Nora's leave-taking in Ibsen's The Doll House, setting up a reminder of an era when a woman had few choices beyond living with a man.

The other connection, of course, is Shaw's championship of Ibsen in the 1890s. Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion was the starting point for Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's beloved musical, My Fair Lady. The original ending to Pygmalion was probably more true to life--Eliza marries the love-sick Freddy--but Lerner and Loewe understood our need for an climax that wraps up the play's central relationship. So Dehert backtracks: Eliza opens another door and returns to the Professor in the final moments of the show.

With the help of a gifted production team--choreographer Kelli Wicke Davis and designers David Jenkins (sets), Amy Appleyard (lights), and Devon Painter (costumes) --Dehnert has spread the staging out over the generous space of Trinity's upstairs theater. The opening scene behind the overture, in which the ensemble dons their costumes and limbers up on stage, has the painterly qualities of a sepia-tinted period picture of life behind the curtain in a Victorian theater.

Dehnert is also the musical director, creating an orchestra by plunking two pianos (played by the excellent Jay Atwood and Tim Robertson) back to back at center stage, accompanied by a pair of strolling violins. The beautifully matched voices of the ensemble augment the music by vocalizing behind the instruments. The sensual effect of the improvisational style in both movement and music served up the familiar songs with a freshness that brought the audience to its feet in a joyous roar at the opening night curtain call.

Rachael Warren, a recent graduate of the American Repertory Theatre's Institute in Cambridge, is splendid as Eliza, particularly in her believable transformation from guttersnipe to lady. She marries a lovely soprano voice to an actor's interpretation of the lyrics, revealing the subtext beneath the punch of the songs. The May-September casting of Warren opposite Timothy Crowe as Higgins is just right, bringing another level of intensity to Eliza's need for a father as well as a mate. Crowe has taken on a number of mentor-father roles in recent seasons, most notably as Uncle Peck in How I Learned To Drive. Crowe talks his songs in the traditional manner of the role, hampered only by the variable acoustics of the lofty theater house. Dehnert has wisely chosen to let Fred Sullivan, Jr., loose in the role of Alfred P. Doolittle, for an exuberant turn worthy of a music hall head-liner.

Other actors from New York and Boston enhance the Trinity Rep regulars such as Janice Duclos as a delightfully long suffering Mrs. Pearce; Phyliss Kay as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Freddy's mother (and as a backstairs maid in the Act I ensemble); and the majestic Barbara Meek as Mrs. Higgins, the Professor's mother. Bob Colonna is fine as Colonel Pickering, stepping in on 36 hours notice when William Damkoehler suffered a heart attack on stage during an early preview. (A member of the Trinity company since 1967, Damkoehler finished the performance, drove himself to the hospital, and is reported to be recovering nicely.)

The Trinity Rep practice of stripping musicals to their bones and building to a presentation true to the essence but far from Broadway-fashion has been brought to peak here. The good news is that Dehnert and team have not been intimidated by the show's reputation, but have propelled it into a new realm of musical theater heaven.

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