In staging the classic My Fair Lady, Atlanta Lyric Theatre and director Scott Seidl have made some wise decisions — the best of which is casting Galen Crawley as its titular character. The show — running through September 3 at the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre in Marietta — doesn’t come together as slickly as it could have, but Crawley alone makes it worthwhile.
The musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, is the beloved story of Eliza Doolittle (Crawley), a Cockney flower girl who is taken in by Henry Higgins (Mark Bradley Miller) to learn to speak properly and “become” a lady. What he doesn’t expect is to fall for his student.
My Fair Lady is known best for its 1964 film version with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, but Julie Andrews originated the role onstage alongside Harrison for the 1956 Broadway run. Half a century later, the musical feels a bit dated — especially Higgins’ misogynist character — but its score (with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe) is still as vibrant as ever. Locally, it’s still staged regularly, with a Georgia Ensemble Theatre version just a few years ago. The musical is even slated to return to Broadway in 2018.
On a technical level, the Atlanta Lyric Theatre take is high-class work. Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes are wonderfully detailed, and choreographer Ashley Chasteen creates several inspired musical numbers, including “Get Me to the Church on Time.” The set by Lee Shiver-Cerone feels a bit scaled down, but it’s efficient enough, and dueling pianists Bob Amar and Paul Tate (also serving as music director) are up to challenge of the noted score.
For the most part, this ensemble is spot-on. Karen Howell plays Higgins’ mother with her usual flair, and few local performers can land wisecracks the way Howell does. George Deavours as Alfred Doolittle, Rob Roper (who strongly resembles the late Edward Herrmann) and Chris Saltalamacchio as suitor Freddy are standouts in a large cast.
My Fair Lady is almost always a vehicle chiefly for its lead actress, and that’s the case here. Crawley hasn’t had a role she could dive into like this since her work in Aurora Theatre’s Mary Poppins. The actress is believable as the flower selling Cockney girl and quite humorous, too, in her phonetically challenged scenes. Her voice is also rich and expressive in such iconic numbers as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Just You Wait.”
The only disappointment — surprisingly — is Miller. Recently seen in the national tour of The Sound of Music, he is certainly a talented, versatile performer. His Higgins is dapper, charming and low-key — but he takes a serious backseat to Crawley here. Unfortunately, there’s also little spark between the two characters. What is supposed to transcend from a teacher-student relationship to love never really does so here. Miller’s Higgins looks at Eliza more so as a project than someone he secretly cares for, even in the final sequence.
The production is long — close to three hours — and Seidl makes us feel every minute of it. It’s enjoyable work, but Seidl’s direction isn’t as fluid as it needs to be.
Atlanta Lyric Theatre tends to do classic musicals the right way — solid and respectful — and at their best can often hang with the big theater boys in town. But other times their productions can feel safe. Although this version entertains, I couldn’t help but imagine as I watched this what a Brian Clowdus or a Tomer Zvulun could do with the same material and what kind of fresh vibe they could bring.
Nonetheless, fans of the musical should be quite pleased with this version, especially in its sparkling leading lady.