There's no denying that My Fair Lady is one of the finest stage musicals of all time — and that Studio Tenn's new production delivers its grand style at the highest level. Watching Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's tuneful adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, we are reminded once again of the Irish master's brilliant insights into the societal condition and his daring depiction of haves and have-nots in a turn-of-the-century world. Shaw's creations — highbrow phoneticist Henry Higgins, lowbrow flower seller Eliza Doolittle, et al. — provide all the grist necessary for the script's gratifying sardonic humor and sly editorializing.
Yet it's not a perfect story for musical purposes, which explains why Shaw never agreed to a musical production while he was alive. He knew it wasn't a romance, and God only knows what he'd make of librettist /lyricist Lerner's rather soft-landing scenario.
It's a long way from "barbarous wretch," "draggletailed guttersnipe," "bilious pigeon" and "squashed cabbage leaf" —Higgins' various terms of non-endearment for his "pupil" Doolittle — to true love and a curtain–closing kiss. But the musical material helps affirm the kind of uplift and happy ending most audiences presumably prefer, compared to the social satire and bittersweet conclusion of Pygmalion.
Kim Bretton, a Brit and a talented actress in her own right, is making her Studio Tenn debut as a director. She also serves as dialect coach, and her lively pacing is matched with credible accents, while choreographer Emily Tello Speck mounts winning if unspectacular dance numbers on the rather cozy stage of the vintage Franklin Theatre.
As Higgins, Studio Tenn artistic director Matt Logan makes his company acting debut, and offers a stout portrayal of the confirmed bachelor and language professor intent on rectifying Eliza's Cockney speech so he can pass her off as an upper-class lady to win a bet. Logan generally recaptures the legendary Rex Harrison "talk-sing" formula and does wonderfully with "Why Can't the English," "I'm an Ordinary Man," "A Hymn to Him" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
Frequent Studio Tenn leading lady Laura Matula returns as the fiery and stubborn Eliza, and she's firing on all cylinders right from the top. She finds a lot of pathos in her character, deftly handles her feature numbers, including "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," one of the finest theater songs ever written. Her rendition of "I Could Have Danced All Night" is also quite stirring, even despite the fact that its message doesn't fit logically in the plot development. It pushes the story forward, but it comes out of left field as a kind of sentimental wish, to indicate Eliza's growing love for her mentor. Still, it's certainly no problem to endure a beautifully sung classic.
Matthew Carlton is a smash as Alfred Doolittle, shining brightly and grabbing laughs with "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "With a Little Bit of Luck. " As a taller-than-normal Col. Pickering, Jeremy Childs finds warm character angles and joins in with the glorious "The Rain in Spain." And Ross Bridgeman receives deservedly warm applause for his melodious version of "On the Street Where You Live," yet another tune with little textual impact but representing fabulous songcraft.
If a show's only as strong as its weakest link, consider that always reliable veterans like Nan Gurley, Marguerite Lowell, Shelean Newman and David Compton are handling key support roles, while the remaining ensemble features pros like Will Sevier and Garris Wimmer, plus a few more products of Belmont University's thriving theater program, including Tucker Hammock and Haley Henderson.
As for the score, it's in the gifted hands of musical director Stephen Kummer and a fine nine-piece orchestra.
The Nashville area sees homegrown productions of My Fair Lady often enough — Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre did it in 2003, Boiler Room Theatre and Lamplighter's in Smyrna both did it in 2009. Studio Tenn's staging looms as the gold standard for now, and maybe for quite a while. When it's done well, it's right as rain in Spain — and a little extra push in the direction of romance never hurt anybody.