My Fair Lady
Presented by Chaffin’s Barn
Through Sept. 6 on the Barn’s Mainstage
8204 Highway 100
For ticket info, call 646-9977
For more than 35 years, John Chaffin and the staff at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre have been providing Nashvillians with comedic and musical fare in a quaint, countryside setting, serving up a rib-sticking and consistent Southern buffet at the same time. The place employs a lot of actors too, and when they’re not onstage, these same performers can often be found earning a living waiting tables or working behind the scenes. In its charmingly middlebrow way, Chaffin’s is a community institution that makes an honest attempt to feed hungry hordes and provide diverting, relatively undemanding entertainment in two different on-site venues.
The company’s current Mainstage production of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady may not reach the heights of high art, but it’s a strong effort, benefiting from solid leading performances by Nancy Allen as Cockney-inflected London flower girl Eliza Doolittle and Joseph Collins as Henry Higgins, the somewhat tyrannical phonetics expert whose teaching skills transform her into a lady of social graces.
Nearly 50 years old, My Fair Lady still holds its own as one of the finest musicals ever written, despite a few problems of logic as the story winds to its conclusionthe by-product of the authors’ tinkering with the source material, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The original, mounted by Nashville’s ACT I several seasons ago, offers no rose-colored vision of romance at play’s end. In Shaw’s telling, confirmed bachelor Higgins sends the now tutored Eliza on her way and betrays a few of his own deep-seated mother issues as well. The musical tweaks the story to a friendly finish, and if the modus operandi for getting there seems pata handful of well-written songs encapsulating some feelings that aren’t otherwise well-developedMy Fair Lady is at least engagingly tuneful and, where the characters are concerned, acceptably harmonious.
The careful observer will note, however, that despite the agreeable, audience-friendly ending, librettist/lyricist Alan Jay Lerner has certainly managed to keep intact Higgins’ hard-edged opinions about women. Songs like “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “Hymn to Him” contain frightfully harsh expressions about the negative (or at least disruptive) impact of a woman on a man’s supposedly peaceful and productive existence. These are also brilliantly crafted pieces, which, in their absolute cleverness, subversively soften the blow of their message. And so, when Higgins utters the play’s final line, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?,” it’s unclear whether the dear girl will ever consummate this relationshipas expressed in her song “Show Me”or instead function simply as Higgins’ trophy wife (or maybe even scullery maid).
In a way, Lerner and Loewe introduce issues that Shaw would never have intended. They even fiddle a bit with the attitude of Mother Higgins, who opines more dispassionately in the play, but in the musical more clearly sides with Eliza. Yet this story is so appealing, and its characters so vivid, that we derive some satisfaction in knowing that the likable principals have some shot at happy-ever-aftering.
The music is simply great, with Frederick Loewe’s melodies clearly establishing that he is as fine a theater composer as ever lived. Besides the aforementioned tunes, Allen and Collins also deliver quality renditions of “Why Can’t the English?,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “Just You Wait,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” The show’s big group number is the elegantly wry “Ascot Gavotte,” which director Martha Wilkinson stages with brio, and to which Billy Ditty’s costumes add a dash of British high-class splendor.
There is wit in every song, but Derek Whittaker gets to work the big-time laughs as Eliza’s ne’er-do-well father, the dustman Alfred Doolittle, in the delightful “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Sometimes the actor goes overboard milking his character’s earthiness, but he gathers in legit laughs all the way through, so it’s tough to quibble with his choices. In the relatively thankless role of Eliza’s potential suitor Freddie, Chris Warren capably sings the somewhat throwawaybut also beautifully wrought and rather famous“On the Street Where You Live.”
Ruth Johnson turns in good support work as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ wise housekeeper, and Liz Kalota proves equally capable as his mother. Phil Perry-Dixon plays Higgins’ friend and colleague Colonel Pickering with some competence, but he reads way too young for the part. A dozen or so chorus members fill in the ancillary roles, and all do nicely, with John Pyka and Natalie Nee in particular possessing voices that stand out. David Compton’s choreography on the larger numbers is unspectacular but gets the job done.
Timothy Orr Fudge is the musical director, and he deserves high marks for setting tempos and blending vocal lines and harmonies. More troubling is the Barn’s refusal to hire more than a single pianist to accompany the singersan ongoing problem here. You would think that a musical production in Music City, of all places, would make some extra effort to bring out the richness of Loewe’s incessantly sophisticated tunesmithing. For dramatic effect and a little textural richness, some side players would be more than welcome. As it is, Susan Brown goes beyond the call of duty with her admirable performance as solo keyboardist, incorporating orchestral flourishes whenever possible into her accurate and lively playing.
With all the good energy expended here, the fact still remains that there’s nothing definitive about this production of My Fair Lady. But it is entertaining, and the viewer comes away with a lot more serious food for thought about male-female dynamics than one usually gets at a dinner theater production. Maybe best of all, the peanut butter pie is back on the Chaffin’s dessert table. (Now, that’s definitive.)
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