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Jennifer Ellis lights up Lyric Stage's ‘My Fair Lady’

Sep 7th 2015 at 7:22 PM

First, the actress-singer jettisoned her glamorous image to portray Zena, a hilariously hard-bitten beauty shop operator in “Out of Sterno’’ at Gloucester Stage. Then Ellis radiated the wide-eyed innocence of an ingénue as Eileen, a young actress getting her first taste of the big city in Reagle Music Theatre’s production of “Wonderful Town.’’

Now Ellis is helping kick off the fall theater season in high style with her beguilingly multifaceted Eliza Doolittle in Scott Edmiston’s vibrant production of “My Fair Lady’’ at Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

For all of the feistiness, humor, and vocal virtuosity Ellis brings to the role, her characterization of Eliza is grounded in a certain poignancy. What is suggested by the subtle play of emotions across Ellis’s expressive face is that Eliza — a Cockney street vendor eager to refine her speech under the tutelage of professor Henry Higgins so she can be “a lady in a flower shop’’ — knows that her hold on dignity and a sense of self-worth is precarious in a world seemingly intent on depriving her of both.

Yet that awareness is balanced with Eliza’s joyous discovery of new possibilities, communicated beautifully by Ellis in her soaring rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night’’ and such anthems of defiance as “Just You Wait’’ and “Without You.’’

From left: Remo Airaldi, Jennifer Ellis, and Christopher Chew in “My Fair Lady.”

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Now, “My Fair Lady’’ isn’t exactly an adventurous choice by Lyric Stage. Apparently recognizing that the Lerner and Loewe musical is overly familiar, Edmiston sets the action not in the customary Edwardian era but in 1938 London, near the end of the Great Depression. But apart from the occasional visual, such as an unemployed man carrying a sign reading “Will work for food,’’ there isn’t much payoff in terms of period-specific atmosphere or thematic resonance. The class friction that adds sizzle to “My Fair Lady’’ was already central to George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,’’ adapted by Lerner and Loewe.

In his staging of the final scene between Eliza and Higgins, portrayed at Lyric Stage by Christopher Chew, Edmiston tries to remedy the smugness that is so unpalatable in the movie version starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. However, the director’s approach feels out of character for the haughty Higgins, diluting the professor’s essence.

There are times, too, when cast members struggle to be heard over the three-piece band inside Lyric Stage’s relatively small space. But on balance this is a satisfyingly full-blooded production that reminds us how much sparkle remains in “My Fair Lady,’’ nearly 60 years after the Broadway premiere made a star of a young Julie Andrews.

Edmiston draws finely etched performances from Remo Airaldi as dithering but good-hearted Colonel Pickering and Jared Troilo as Eliza’s ardently foppish suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Troilo’s performance of “On the Street Where You Live’’ — muted at first, then passionately vaulting — drew roars of approval from the audience. J.T. Turner imbues Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s reprobate father, with an entertaining rascality, while Cheryl McMahon is frozen-faced perfection as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’s disapproving housekeeper.

An excellent ensemble brings David Connolly’s jauntily robust choreography to life. The eye-catching costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley range from a flamboyant, candy-striped red-and-white dress, with matching hat, that Eliza wears to the Ascot Racecourse scene, to a demure yet smashing ’30s-style lilac gown in which she’s attired for the climactic Embassy Ball.

Janie E. Howland’s set includes large white columns adorned with words (“street,’’ “hello,’’ “book,’’ “think,’’ etc.) and above those words, phonetic symbols. A catwalk extends onto the stage, and Edmiston uses it shrewdly: Ellis ascends that height for the final verse of “I Could Have Danced All Night,’’ and Chew’s Higgins gazes down imperiously from there when Alfred first ventures into the professor’s home.

For the most part, though, Chew does not traverse the icily aloof plane where Rex Harrison’s Higgins dwelt. Chew’s Higgins comes across as more of an in-the-trenches hothead. None of Harrison’s speak-sing style for Chew, either: The actor demonstrates a supple voice as he ably delivers numbers like “Why Can’t the English?,’’ “I’m an Ordinary Man,’’ and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.’’

But this production really lights up when Ellis is at center stage. She’s earned a rest after “My Fair Lady’’ wraps up Oct. 11, but somehow one doubts she’ll take it.

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