With the area’s summer theater season now in full swing, Fuse Productions will present its production of the legendary stage musical “My Fair Lady.”
The show runs Thursday through June 12 and June 16-18 at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center in State College.
“My Fair Lady” is adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play, “Pygmalion,” with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. Starring Steve Snyder as Henry Higgins and Lisa Marie Rogali as Eliza Doolittle, this production celebrates the 60th anniversary of the original Broadway show, which debuted on March 15, 1956, at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York City. “My Fair Lady” is the 20th-longest-running Broadway show of all time.
The production features a 14-person cast that includes a mix of Penn State faculty, current and recent undergraduates and local talent — including Frank Wilson, Tom McClary, Joyce Robinson, Aidan Wharton and Sally Best. It features live musical accompaniment and is directed by Richard Biever and choreographed by Jill Brighton, with set design by Michael Benson and costumes by Julie Snyder.
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The original Broadway production of “My Fair Lady,” starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, won six Tony awards in 1956, including best musical, best director for Moss Hart and best actor for Harrison. The 1964 film version of the show starred Audrey Hepburn and won eight Academy Awards.
“We’re excited to do the classic musical ‘My Fair Lady’ in this, the 60th anniversary of its Broadway opening,” Biever said. “It is such a well-crafted, hilarious, tuneful and, surprisingly, extremely timely show. The material is a delight to work on, and it seems as fresh and important as it was in 1956, when it was the ‘Hamilton’ of its day.”
Biever said he is thrilled with the cast of “My Fair Lady,” including Best as Mrs. Pearce, Wharton as Freddy, Wilson as Col. Pickering, and his two stars, Snyder and Rogali. “Both are giving such assured, truthful performances that are very exciting and unique,” he said. “And doing the show with only 14 in the cast and with two pianos only heightens the relationships of the principal characters and puts the emphasis where it belongs — on how the characters are growing or not.”
The story concerns Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who takes speech lessons from the imperious and attractive professor Henry Higgins, a phoneticist, so that she might pass as a lady. Higgins wagers that he can transform Eliza into a lady fit for society by teaching her to speak more beautifully. Sparks fly in what becomes a funny and ferocious battle of the sexes, a struggle of classes and a rollicking romance.
Higgins is a confirmed bachelor who likes things the way he likes them. He is the immovable object that is met by the irresistible force of Eliza Doolittle.
“He likes to be in control, to know things — and know them deeply and expertly, he likes a challenge, has a very healthy ego, and would just like people to speak properly, as good speech reveals clarity of thought and respect for self and others — in his mind anyway,” Snyder said. “Higgins’ primary job is to be the source of conflict for just about everyone in the story. In short, my job is to be difficult and say provocative things.”
A Penn State theater professor, Snyder grew up with the show and is excited to take on such an interesting role. He remembers watching the movie of “My Fair Lady” on TV when he was 12, or so, and absolutely loving it.
“I was watching it by myself, got up and made some popcorn while the screen said ‘intermission,’ came back and devoured both Act Two and my popcorn,” he said. “My mom popped her head into the room and asked ‘Do you like this?’ ‘I love it!’ came my reply.”
In the role of Mrs. Eynsford-Hill and in the ensemble is Kathleen Shondeck, co-adviser and director of the Mount Nittany Middle School Drama Club.
Mrs. Eynsford-Hill is a combination of the mother and daughter Eynsford-Hill characters in “Pygmalion,” and she tends to take on more of the snobbish characteristics of the Pygmalion daughter, Clara, in the musical. She’s a good friend to Henry’s mother, Mrs. Higgins, and mother to Eliza’s suitor, Freddy.
“Mrs. Eynsford-Hill’s place in the show is to highlight the mentality of much of the upper class at the time, and their attitude toward the lower class,” Shondeck said. “She’s about keeping things the way they should be, and puts most of her energy into displaying the proper behavior; and in making sure her son, Freddy, attains a suitable place in society.”
Shondeck’s son, Justin, who will be a senior at State College Area High School this fall, has been in many Singing Onstage, State College Community Theatre, Fuse and State High shows. Justin is playing the role of Jamie and is also part of the ensemble.
While it may appear to some to be a sexist show, “My Fair Lady” may be more in line with what Charlotte Atler wrote for Time magazine in 2014: “It’s about a strong woman attempting to retain her identity in spite of the controlling machinations of a small-minded man.”
“It’s about misogyny and illustrates how unlikeable a person who thinks like Henry Higgins can be,” Shondeck said. “One also can look at this show in its early 1900s time period and make the case that while sexism may not be as prevalent on the surface, if you dig a bit deeper, it still exists 60 years later.”
“I think the source material, Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion,’ is so strong that you’ve got a very powerful foundation,” Snyder said. “What Lerner and Lowe invented, adjusted or removed were the perfect adjustments to create this world. The arguments are so interesting and essentially human, and the songs truly emerge from the situations and reveal or develop character. I hope the audience is swept up in the story, falls in love with these characters, and engages the debate about language and what it can do.”
IF YOU GO
- What: “My Fair Lady”
- When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-June 11 and June 16-18; 2 p.m. June 12, 18
- Where: Penn State Downtown Theatre Center, Allen Street, State College
- Info: fuseproductions.org