With Nashville’s favorite theatreati, Jeffrey Ellis at the helm, there was never a doubt that his vision of “My Fair Lady” would be a simply elegant affair. Having dedicated much of his life to preserving, upholding and continuing the growth of the theatre scene in and around Nashville, Ellis has, in recent years, directed memorable productions of “Picnic”, “The Miss Firecracker Contest” and “Cabaret”. With each show, he seamlessly acknowledges the original work, while simultaneously often including nods to both their theatrical and cinematic adaptations. “My Fair Lady”, on stage at the Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre (108 Donelson Pike, Nashville, 37214) through March 4, is no exception.
To that end, when I spoke with Ellis and members of his cast for a recent Rapid Fire 20 Q, the director revealed his interpretation of the Learner and Loewe classic would indeed pay homage to the original, as well as the beloved film version. What’s more, Ellis, being a fan of TV’s “Downton Abbey”, has slightly bumped the timeframe of the piece from it’s original Edwardian Era to the 1920s. While this doesn’t change the content of the work, it does change our perceptions. Even the mention of the 1920s evokes notions of everything from social to political freedoms from defying prohibition to women’s rights. Therefore, by association, Eliza Doolittle in the 1920s is inherently more outspoken, self-assured and confident, almost right from the beginning.
The set, while mostly minimal, what with the Keeton permanent stage ares painted black, with stars peppering the background, does feature a few nice 1920s-esque touches including a gramophone complete with brass horn ‘speaker’ and a candlestick telephone, courtesy stage manager/prop mistress, Suzanne Spooner-Faulk.
However, the subtle change in time is most visually apparent in the gorgeous costumes by Tanis Westbrook. In particular, high society’s beautiful, mostly black, still-conservative gowns worn in the play’s famous Ascot race scene. In the film version, Audrey Hepburn‘s Eliza shows up at the race dressed in a white lace dress accented with black and white striped ribbon, modest as her upper-crust hosts, but just edgy enough to turn heads. While most subsequent productions have opted to emulate the look of this iconic scene, Ellis and Westbrook instead dress Eliza in a pastel yellow and white flapper-inspired number with matching feathery flower boa, offering the look of a more liberated, self-assured Roaring 20s Eliza Doolittle. The pale yellow color choice is repeated later in the show when Eliza makes her grand entrance at the embassy ball. Visually, yellow is associated with everything from happiness and positivity to hope and positivity. By choosing this color for two of Eliza’s big scenes, Ellis and costumer Westbrook subconsciously instill these associations with Eliza. Again, it’s a very understated difference, but an effective one, nonetheless.
Speaking of Eliza, Ellis has cast Erica Patterson as the Cockney flower peddler who, with the help of linguist Professor Henry Higgins, transforms into a refined proper society lady. Having previously tackled roles as diverse as Eve in “Jesus Christ Superstar” as well as Sarah in “Ragtime”, Patterson has quickly proven herself as one of Nashville’s burgeoning young actresses who is just as beautiful as the voice and talent she possesses.
As expected, Patterson excels during the show’s better known musical numbers like “Just You Wait” and “The Rain in Spain”, but it’s Ellis‘ subdued direction of “I Could Have Danced All Night” that truly showcases not only Patterson‘s ability to use her voice in an understated but beautiful way, but also softly demonstrate her captivating stage presence.
Throughout the show, her take on Eliza Doolittle perfectly explores the depth of the role. She is equal parts stubborn, curious, enchanting and ultimately grateful for the chance to not only improve her station in life, but to do so on her own terms, as much as being the subject of a bet between Higgins and his protege will allow.
On the subject of Higgins, Ellis has cast the role quite a bit younger than is usual in Cavender Lane. Perhaps due to opening night jitters, initially Lane doesn’t appear to be the best vocalist of the cast. That said, he more than makes up for it in presenting a truly pretentious, nearly obnoxious Higgins. He’s never better than when he’s brow-beating Eliza during their lessons. Again, thanks to Ellis‘ direction, Lane does get to explore more than just the gruff side of Higgins, especially apparent during the show’s final three numbers, “Hymn to Him”, “Without You” (a wonderfully unexpected anti-duet lead by Patterson)” and the final tune, “I’ve Grown Accustom to Her Face”. The sincerity in the performance of the latter eclipses any misgivings of his vocal abilities from earlier in the show.
The remaining featured roles are adroitly filled. Returning to the Keeton after a powerhouse performance as Frank Butler in “Annie Get Your Gun”, Chris Cavin seems a tad under used as Colonel Pickering, but is entertaining, nonetheless.
J. Robert Lindsey is charming as Freddy. Having stolen more than a few scenes in last year’s “Cabaret”, Lindsey takes full advantage of “On the Street Where You Live” and his charming duet with Patterson, “Show Me”.
Cast as Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, Elliott Robinson presents a man who does just what is require of him to get by, and enjoys every minute of it, frequently aided by fellow ne’er-do-wells Harry (George Hardimon) and Jamie (Austin Jeffrey-Smith) This trio provides one of the show’s best-received moments early on as they drunkenly sing and dance the night away during the optimistic “With a Little Bit of Luck”, complete with drunk-ography courtesy choreographer Lauri Gregoire.
Of course a huge part of the popularity and success of any production of “My Fair Lady” is due the gorgeous soundtrack from the brilliant minds of Lerner and Loewe. No need to worry there, as Keeton’s musical director, Ginger Newman is once again on-hand, albeit hidden behind the set, as she masterfully oversees keyboardists Annie Diomedes and Dann Childres, and Bob Bowers on woodwinds. While attending opening night, one of my companions was pleasantly surprised to learn that the music was indeed live and not a pre-recorded track. We are indeed in Music City and Ginger Newman and company represent some of the best musicians around.
Notable supporting players include Janet Coscarelli and Judy Jackson as Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, respectively. These two veteran actresses are simply loverly. While the major players all do a fine job with their accents, thanks in part to Ellis utilizing dialect coaches Eve White and Kim Bretton–the show’s set in London, after all–you gotta love these two ladies for slipping in and out of their own southern accents. Even if not on purpose, it adds an amusing aside, considering Professor Higgins is a dialect coach, while his mother doesn’t seem to have a clear British accent. Regardless, these ladies exude aristocratic charm and disproval of anything less, save the transformed Eliza. The scene between Patterson‘s Eliza and Coscarelli‘s Mrs. Higgins sipping tea and mutually dissing Henry is priceless.
Even Ellis‘ background players are worth watching. Throughout the play, audience members can’t help but notice Maggie Jackson, Tiffany Day, John Mark Redding, Melissa Vinson, Earl Landree, Gracie McGraw and others. Whether hamming it up behind the main action, or providing gorgeous vocal harmonies during all-in musical numbers, the background actors keep the audience entertained and the action going.
Following a SOLD OUT opening weekend, “My Fair Lady” continues 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). For the meal during “My Fair Lady”, there’s a delicious meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and a dinner roll. Of course there’s dessert as well featuring cobbler and a dollop of vanilla ice cream. 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. Be sure and follow the Larry Keeton Dinner Theater on Facebook to stay informed of occasional special show-only rush ticket pricing.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of the Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre‘s “My Fair Lady”, check out my recent Rapid Fire interview with the cast 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.