When Jeffrey Ellis, one of the most revered and respected members of Nashville’s theatre community takes charge of “My Fair Lady”, one of the most beloved stage musicals of all time, the combination of the two is undoubtedly bound for glory. Beginning February 16, that sure-fire collaboration will debut at The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre (108 Donelson Pike, Nashville, 37214) as Ellis directs the Lerner and Loewe classic.
A huge fan of the work, as well as this production’s director and several members of the cast, I knew I had to chat with Ellis and company for my latest Rapid Fire 20 Q. Chatting with them allowed me to get the inside scoop, not just to find out what Ellis, who always finds a way to make a production uniquely his own, but to ask the cast about working with their director and each other as they honor the cherished tale of a young woman who rises above her perceived station in life to surprise not only those who laid odds against her, but herself in the process.
RAPID FIRE 20 Q WITH CAST AND CREW OF KEETON THEATRE’S “MY FAIR LADY”
Rapid Fire with Jeffrey Ellis, director of Keeton Theatre’s “My Fair Lady”
JONATHAN PINKERTON: Perhaps due to Audrey Hepburn’s beloved portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 film version, audiences may have certain preconceived notions about “My Fair Lady”. I love that you’ve cast this show with a multi-culturally diverse group of actors, most notably of course, casting Erica Patterson, a stunningly beautiful and angelically voiced black actress in the lead. Can you speak a little about that?
JEFFREY ELLIS: This is not an “African-American” production of My Fair Lady, rather I tried to be color-blind when casting the show from among the dozens of people who auditioned. I had a great pool of talent from which to choose, particularly for the role of Eliza Doolittle. I was determined to cast the best possible actor in the role and when I chose Erica Patterson for the role of Eliza, I knew it could be controversial, but also very timely. With Erica cast as Eliza, it helps to underscore the already obvious themes of class differences in the show and would present us with a way to deliver the story to a contemporary audience in a unique way that I had not seen before.
JP: On the flip-side, you’ve also got the equally gorgeous and talented caucasian actress, Ashley Wolfe cast as an understudy for Eliza. It’s quite unusual for a local theatre company to cast an understudy for a lead role. Why did you opt to do this?
JEFFREY ELLIS: I had always planned to have an understudy for the role of Eliza — with a role of this magnitude (Eliza is central to the plot, of course, but she’s also the only female cast member with a sizable role, other than Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper) it’s best to have an understudy in the cast just in case something unexpected befalls the production…at this time of year, especially, when there’s enough illness floating around that a rehearsal room becomes a petri dish of colds and flu. Ashley Wolfe seemed perfect for that role (and it was between her and Erica for the lead), so I asked her to do it. And it’s my belief that if someone puts in the work of understudying the role, particularly in community theatre, you should give them an opportunity to play the role at some point. So, I offered Ashley three shows for her to play Eliza. Both she and Erica are happy with the situation and they are able to help each other prepare for the run of the show. Every show I direct, I approach it from the standpoint that I want to cast the very best people I have to choose from in order to tell the story…it’s pretty much as simple as that.
JP: Tell me about some of your supporting cast?
JEFFREY ELLIS: As with Erica, Elliott Winston Robinson was the ideal choice to play Alfred P. Doolittle — he’s charming, talented, focused and has tremendous stage presence — so he and Erica as father and daughter works well within my vision of what the show is about.
Higgins, played by Cavender Lane, is somewhat younger than he is often cast and I have tried to capture that which makes Higgins “Higgins” and to show his evolution as a man of the times, while examining the relationship between Higgins and Eliza and how their class differences define each of them and bring them together.
JP: Having seen recent productions of “Cabaret” and “Picnic”, I’ve noticed that you, as a director, tend to pay homage to cinematic versions of the work while also including a decidedly Jeffrey Ellis touch. That said, what can we expect from your vision of “My Fair Lady”?
JEFFREY ELLIS: When I direct a show, I always try to do something different — not just for the sake of being different, but to give the show my own take and to not simply be a retread of what I’ve seen before. To that end, I’ve allowed myself to be inspired by Downton Abbey. Since this is the first season without DA, I thought it would be fun and might even attract a wider audience to do a DA take on the script. I’ve set the show in the early 1920s from the point of its design aesthetic and there are some subtle things that help convey the sense of a changing world after World War I.
Rapid Fire with Erica Patterson, Eliza Doolittle in Keeton Theatre’s “My Fair Lady”
JP: After having seen you in Circle Players’ “Ragtime” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”, during the latter of which, we chatted for a previous Rapid Fire 20 Q, so naturally I was excited to hear you’re playing Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”. Taking on this classic role, what can audiences expect from your interpretation of such a beloved character?
ERICA PATTERSON: Thank you! Our production of “My Fair Lady” is set during the 1920’s, so you’ll notice an overall shift in style. I was introduced to this show a few years ago when my vocal teacher gave me the music to “I Could Have Danced All Night”. I instantly fell in love with it and the other musical numbers from the show and didn’t get a chance to see the classic movie until a couple of months ago. I am playing true to mine and Jeffrey’s vision of Eliza I hope that longtime fans of the show will love the moments that our cast and crew have created together.
JP: Of course initially Eliza is pretty much a girl from the streets, with a rough Cockney dialect to go with the less-than-refined exterior. As she undergoes her transformation to a lady of class, her speech affectation also undergoes a major shift. I have to admit, one of my pet peeves is when actors muck up accents. Does the cast have the benefit of a dialect coach? If not, what are you doing to get both dialects just right?
ERICA PATTERSON: Yes we have had the honor of working with Eve White for our dialect coaching. She has been so wonderful and really takes the time to make sure that we all have a clear understanding of what and how we pronounce our lines.
JP: As part of her transformation, aside from the change in the way Eliza talks, there’s also the change in her wardrobe. For this production, you have Tanis Westbrook as your costume coordinator. Do you have a favorite Eliza look?
ERICA PATTERSON: I am completely in love with the gown that I wear to the ball.
JP: When I spoke with Jeffrey, I learned that you’re not the only Eliza, what with Jeffrey casting Ashley Wolfe as your understudy who will appear in three performances during the show’s run. Are you ladies working together in developing Eliza so as to create a cohesive presentation of Jeffrey’s vision of the character?
ERICA PATTERSON: I am very inspired by Ashley’s portrayal of Eliza. Jeff clearly expresses his vision for Eliza and I believe that we both have a great grasp on who she is and what she wants which is very important in playing this role. However, I believe that our approaches are going to be different because we are two different individuals/artist.
Rapid Fire with Elliott Robinson, Alfred P. Doolittle in Keeton Theatre’s “My Fair Lady”
JP: While you’ve starred in shows all over town, over the years you’ve appeared on-stage at The Keeton. If memory serves me right, 2015’s “A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol” was your last show there. What’s it like being back on stage at The Keeton?
ELLIOTT ROBINSON: It’s always great to be back on stage at Keeton, because I know what I’m going to get here. I know I’m going to be in somebody’s “all-time favorite” musical, because Jamie London keeps a steady stream of those coming. I know I’ll get to sing with awesome instrumentalists, and that Ginger Newman will keep the music direction super-tight. And, I know that I’ll be performing for a large and appreciative crowd, who will recognize and remember when you do good work. Now, I get to work with Jef Ellis (for the first time), too? As an artist who always considers himself as learning, imagine being able to “sit at the feet” of these three, with their wealth of experience? I’m glad to be a part of the Keeton family; they always make me feel right at home here.
JP: I’ve always enjoyed the humor in your character’s name. Alfred Doolittle, seeing as he does just as little as possible to survive. Character flaw? or Character quality?
ELLIOTT ROBINSON: I think Mr. Doolittle might be Mr. Do Just Enough – for himself. He sings his life’s philosophy in the song, “With a Little Bit of Luck.” He just wants to enjoy life, having maximum fun while expending minimum effort, all while showing little regard for the plight of his fellow man. Can we say there’s anything wrong with that? He feels that having money gives a person too much responsibility, particularly for people other than himself. Like he says, too much money “makes a man feel all prudent-like; and then goodbye to happiness!” But, who are we to call it a character flaw when people have horribly low expectations of themselves? We can just wish them luck, like Eliza does her dear old Dad.
JP: As has been mentioned in my previous conversations, Jeffrey not only cast Erica as Eliza, but also Ashley Wolfe as her understudy. Are you getting rehearsal time with both your onstage daughters?
ELLIOTT ROBINSON: This is the first time I’ve worked with understudies in a situation like this. I think it’s great the way Jef is working both ladies in to get reps on stage, and they’re both doing great work. I’ve been in a couple shows with Erica over at Circle Players when she was in the ensemble, but I could tell then that she had leading lady written all over her (ahem – she’s proven me right). I’ve also seen Ashley work, in Street Theater’s “In the Heights”, so I know she’s amazing as well. I feel like I’m getting a two-for-one deal; and I’m very excited to get the chance to work with them both.
JP: As Eliza points out during one crucial scene in the play, Alfred’s thoughts on class division are somewhat mirrored, to a degree, to those of Professor Higgins. Your thoughts?
ELLIOTT ROBINSON: Although at first glance, Doolittle and Higgins may look like two extremes, they do have one very powerful thing in common. Neither of them appreciate the different distinctions in class, because “society” all seems to be so… fake. Just because someone has money (especially when they haven’t worked for it), does that mean they are now better people than someone else? We all know that richer does not equal better; that money does not automatically beget “class.” I think both men also pride themselves on being able to treat everybody the same; which can be a good and a bad thing, I guess.
Rapid Fire with Cavender Lane, Professor Henry Higgins in Keeton Theatre’s “My Fair Lady”
JP: Prior to being cast as Professor Higgins, you’ve recently been seen in Springhouse Theatre’s “Oklahoma” and before that, Murfreesboro Center for the Arts’ “1776”. So, from 1776 to both American and England in the early 1900s. Which do you prefer?
CAVENDER LANE: I do not think I have ever viewed a time and place as distinct from the character I was playing. Understanding the Oklahoma territory was a tool for understanding Jud. The same goes for Higgins in London and Jefferson in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. Both of those characters are largely defined by how they react to the time in which they live and their own opinions on how society ought to be. Higgins has very definite opinions about his time and place! Setting being so linked to character in my mind, I don’t know if I can pick one over another. It would feel like picking one character over another!
JP: When I spoke with Jeffrey, he touched on the fact that as his Henry Higgins, you’re a bit younger than the role is typically cast. What aspect of the character are you bringing out given that fact?
CAVENDER LANE: I tried not to focus too much on the age of the character. One of the great things about Higgins is that his behavior is hard to put an age on. One might say that, emotionally speaking, he’s rather young, almost childish. Yet he possesses an extremely adept intellect and the confidence of a man at the top of his field as well as the stubbornness of a man who is well set in his ways. So, in trying to get to the heart of who he is, I found him to be a character that doesn’t need to be played in any particular age range. This has been a great deal of fun to act out on stage, going quickly between childish enthusiasm (And petulance) and a more experienced confidence.
JP: For “My Fair Lady”, Jeffrey has brought on one of my favorite Nashville theatre ladies to choreograph, the lovely and talented Lauri Gregoire. How has it been to work with her?
CAVENDER LANE: I have not spent much time working with her. Higgins only has two brief moments of choreography in our production. For those two moments, though, I found her a delight to work with. She’s a fun and professional person.
JP: I understand Jeffrey’s direction presents a pretty clear idea of will they/won’t they, as far as the question of whether Eliza and Henry end up in a ‘happily ever after’ scenario. Jeffrey’s interpretation aside, do you think Eliza and Henry could sustain a relationship, given everything they both learn during her transformation?
CAVENDER LANE: They’re both very headstrong people, yet they both admire each other. The result is a sort of stormy compatibility. I can’t decide if they’re both too stubborn for it to work or just stubborn enough to make it happen! I lean toward them being able to work it out. I think they exert such a strong emotional pull on each-other that neither of them could permanently end their association.
Rapid Fire with Chris Cavin, Colonel Pickering in Keeton Theatre’s “My Fair Lady”
JP: If my research is correct, this marks your third Keeton production, having wowed audiences last year as Frank Butler in “Annie Get Your Gun” and debuting at the Keeton before that in “Cabaret”. Are you feeling like a member of the Keeton family yet?
CHRIS CAVIN: I definitely am. They are a very welcoming, loving and supportive group of people. More than any other theater that I have worked in, I definitely feel like they care about me. I have also felt like the Keeton’s audiences have given me a warm reception, they are always so gracious and complimentary.
JP: “My Fair Lady” marks your second time to work with director Jeffrey Ellis, the aforementioned “Cabaret” being the first. What is it about Jeffrey’s directorial style that breathes new life into such classic shows?
CHRIS CAVIN: Jef is fantastic! He loves theater, but he also loves history. It is always interesting to hear him talking about the background and setting of the show. I also love that he knows exactly what he wants out of an actor and is not afraid to tell you. Sometimes he tells you loudly and in front of a lot of people, but it’s all in good fun.
JP: While Higgins teaches Eliza how to speak properly, Pickering’s lessons, through his thoughtful nature, teach Eliza an arguably more valuable lesson. That of self-respect. Is there someone in your life to whom you credit learning that type of lesson?
CHRIS CAVIN: My parents raised me to always have a sense of self worth and to know I could do anything I set my mind to. My wife and kiddos are currently my biggest cheerleaders. Being surrounded by people who believe in me, I can’t help but respect myself.
JP: While Higgins can be quite the taskmaster where Eliza’s phonetics lessons are concerned, Colonel Pickering comes across as more genteel. What comes more natural to you, taskmaster or compassion?
CHRIS CAVIN: I would have to say that I am somewhere in the middle. I definitely have a disciplinarian streak in me, but I can also be empathetic and understanding. I believe (as does Pickering) that you should treat everyone with respect and it will encourage their own self worth.
“My Fair Lady” opens Thursday, February 16 at The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre (108 Donelson Pike, Nashville, TN 37214) with shows Thursdays-Sundays through Saturday, March 4. The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre offers dinner and show tickets for $30 (Children 12 and under dinner and show tickets are $20). Dinner seating begins at 6 p.m., with the show beginning at 7. Sunday lunch seating begins at 1 p.m. with the show starting at 2 p.m. Show only tickets are also available for $18 (Adults) and $15 (12 and under). Group discounts are available for $27/ea. For more information, call 615.883.8375 or CLICK HERE to purchase tickets.
If you’ve enjoyed this chat with the director and cast members from The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre‘s “My Fair Lady”, check out other recent Rapid Fire interviews and don’t forget to subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.