The Dayton Playhouse’s pleasant production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick’s Loewe’s classic 1956 musical My Fair Lady, the organization’s 60th anniversary season opener, ascends to another level thanks to Sarah Viola’s marvelously sung and skillfully interpreted portrayal of Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle.
A classically trained, Cincinnati-based soprano and graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Viola vocally dazzles with warmhearted wistfulness in Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?, playful vengeance in Just You Wait, fierce fervor in Show Me, and empowering confidence in Without You. But in one of the most thrilling numbers at the Playhouse in recent memory, she jumps an octave at the conclusion of the signature tune I Could Have Danced All Night. It is a blissfully breathtaking, nearly showstopping moment not even attempted by Julie Andrews (the original Eliza), Marni Nixon (the singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film) or Lauren Ambrose (the Tony-nominated Eliza in Lincoln Center’s current, lavish revival). Vocals aside, Viola initially ensures Eliza is conveyed within a tough, scrappy mindset, an honest reflection of her hard-knock life acquiring a few shillings, pounds or pence on the streets of 1913 London. But as Eliza attempts a better life personally and professionally under the strict tutelage of linguistics Professor Henry Higgins (David Shough), she astutely blossoms with elegance, femininity, and self-worth, solidifying the pivotal transformation at the core of this story of socioeconomics, gender wars, family, love, and forgiveness based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion.
The equally praiseworthy Shough creates palpable chemistry with Viola and doesn’t overreach in communicating Higgins’ arrogance and cruelty, a wise choice since the role can be terribly unnerving. After all, a powerful man second-guessing a woman’s potential by calling her heartless, disgusting and a disgrace is tough to digest when viewed in context of today’s #MeToo movement. Nonetheless, Shough’s nuances are great (notice how he says “America” in Why Can’t the English?) and the forceful fury he brings to Higgins’ dismay of Eliza joining forces with his former student Zoltan Karpathy signals a betrayal that would sting forever. Shough also keeps the contemplative poignancy of I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face intact and unhurried in spite of the production’s problematic pacing which has the number arriving well after the three-hour mark.
Furthermore, enjoyable featured roles are offered by Brian Laughlin (a lovingly daft Colonel Pickering), Brad Bishop (a hearty Alfred P. Doolittle), Dodie Lockwood (a delightfully sophisticated Mrs. Higgins), Donna Bostwick (a fittingly dutiful Mrs. Pearce), Jamie McQuinn (a kooky Karpathy), Drew Roby (a believably smitten Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Jackie Pfeifer (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill), Steve Strawser and Karla Enix (Lord and Lady Boxington), Mark Sharp and Jim Spencer (Alfred’s boozy chums Harry and Jamie), Ryan Petrie (a dashing Prince of Transylvania), and Angelé Price-Maddah (making the most of meddlesome Mrs. Hopkins). Ensemble members include CJ Suchyta, Benjamin Jones, Elainah Skaroupka, Shana Fishbein, Stacey Brewer, Amber Pfeifer, Neve Barker, Jamie Pavlofsky, Annie Sayers, Cathy Long, Marabeth Klejna, Jacob Christy, and Samuel Hamilton.
Director Brian Sharp should’ve tightened many scenes and quickened scene changes, but his desire to incorporate shades of the film version will likely please many patrons. I honestly couldn’t help but think of Hepburn when Viola stunningly enters in her white Embassy Ball gown (costumer Theresa Kahle is responsible for the Cecil Beaton-esque recreation). However, he curiously borrows a page from the aforementioned Broadway revival at the show’s conclusion, but fails to establish enough romantic subtext between Eliza and Higgins from the outset to make the climactic moment truly resonate. Considering the fact that the film seems to be one of Sharp’s major influences, Shough simply should’ve slumped in his chair with Viola standing nearby approvingly as the orchestra swells.
In addition to Kahle, who also does a swell job coordinating Ascot in black, gray and white, the artistic team includes choreographer Sandra Hyde (supplying variety from the easygoing breeziness of Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? and With a Little Bit of Luck to the tiptoe synchronization of Ascot Gavotte and the spiritedness of Get Me To The Church on Time), scenic designer Red Newman (notably providing a beautiful backdrop for Mrs. Higgins’ home), lighting designer Richard Lee Waldeck, sound designer Bob Kovach, music director Ron Kindell (leading a fine 16-piece orchestra), vocal director Tim Rezash, property designer Tina McPhearson, and wig designer Marvel Elcessor.
My Fair Lady will always be remembered for its wonderful score defining the Golden Age of Broadway, but perhaps more significantly, it remains a cautionary tale about communication, specifically the importance of treating others with respect. As Eliza overcomes adversity to embrace her future with hope, Viola displays considerable strength and power, attributes vocally exemplified in her glorious final note of I Could Have Danced All Night. In a perfect world, we would look forward to seeing her again as a member of Lincoln Center’s 2019-2020 My Fair Lady national tour, or better yet, in the immediate future, she’d be a stellar addition to the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s upcoming concert My Fair Broadway: The Hits of Lerner and Loewe. Nevertheless, let us be grateful she’s at the Dayton Playhouse effortlessly singing songs you’d think were written just for her.
My Fair Lady continues through Sept. 30 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler, Ave., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. At the performance attended, the production ran 3 hours and 15 minutes. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 or seniors, students and military. For more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit daytonplayhouse.com