There have been few musicals as beloved as the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe masterpiece My Fair Lady. It's a tale of a flower girl who is taught elegance by a pompous elocutionist, and it features some of Broadway's most memorable tunes ("The Rain in Spain," "On the Street Where You Live"). But how do you turn one of the most extravagant, big musicals of all time into a production that can take place on a small stage? The Long Beach Playhouse not only found out a way to make the big ensemble dances crackle with life, but made every square foot of the space feel important to the story. With just a few props moved around in between scenes, the production of My Fair Lady is an entertaining experience that never feels small. In fact, it's downright loverly.
One of the most compelling touches of the Long Beach Playhouse's interpretation of the story is its use of music. Due to its limited space, it can't afford a traditional orchestra. In its place is a predominant piano with some percussion and strings to accompany. While this causes several small shifts in the production - specifically in the musical numbers - it ends up being one of the show's best traits. The piano's jaunty melody shifts the production to something more immediate and lively. Its stripped down sound allows the vocals to be better emphasized throughout the production, and allows the choreography to shine, often featuring a dozen actors doing choreography across limited stage. It's a joyous occasion that is as lively as Eliza Doolittle's humble beginnings. The simple piano captures her simple desires, which is to live an easy life and sleep in a nice warm bed. What the music lacks in elegant production, it makes up for in the feeling of intimacy, which gives the remainder of the story a nice touch.
Eliza (Nori T. Schmidt) is once again a compelling figure in this production, in large part because of her transformation from speaking in a Cockney English accent to sounding posh. It's because of this that Schmidt gives a great performance that is comedic but also full of pain and strength, in large part because the direction understands Eliza's abusive childhood with her father Alfie (Gregory Cohen). It influences her actions, making her timid when an innocent hand is raised. This isn't to say that the scholarly Henry Higgins (Lawrence Ingalls) isn't without some charm, as it's the duo's chemistry that makes the play so compelling. Where Eliza has more emphasis on growth and change, it's Henry's struggle to sympathize that makes him a great comedic folly. Ingalls gives him a debonair manner while managing to make a straight-faced rendition of "I'm an Ordinary Man" great character building by entering and exiting the scene in between verses. This Henry Higgins doesn't need sympathy, and it allows the conflict between the characters to work better.
Considering the compacted space, Long Beach Playhouse manages to put on a great version of the musical that may take some liberties (the iconic ending features a few alterations), but what comes through is the emotion and enthusiasm of the actors. Everyone there is eager to put on a great show and doesn't let the limited props and orchestra keep it from feeling grandiose. The wardrobe is excellent and the emotions are even prettier (and uglier). For what is lacking, the production manages to feature a cast who know how to sing and dance without being lost in the acoustics. By the end, it's the performances by Ingalls and Schmidt that make the adaptation a worthwhile experience, as they bring life to two familiar characters by making their pain and struggles funnier and inevitably more human. There's not a dull moment in the show, and it creates the ultimate testament to why this George Bernard Shaw-based story has continued to withstand the test of time.
My Fair Lady is best known as a lavish production with big sets, booming songs, and glorious costume design. Despite the limitations, Long Beach Playhouse has worked around their limitations and recreated a story that packs a punch. It understands that the charm of the story isn't necessarily just in how the orchestra plays behind the singer. It's about how the emotions are conveyed, which is essentially in a musical about language's ability to unite and isolate. It's full of subtle brilliance that turns these characters into some of the liveliest interpretations that have been seen on stage. It may not have a full piece orchestra, but it does have a piano, clanging away while creating a version that feels smaller, jauntier, and clever than any more traditional version ever has.