Also see John's review of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
While Chicago is justly proud of its theatre community, its neighboring metropolis of Milwaukee, 90 miles to the north, has a theatre scene that is less a rival than a complement to the larger city's Loop and off-Loop offerings. The relationship between the two artistic communities is closer than most Chicago theatergoers likely realize, as a good number of the artists regularly work on both sides of the state line, regardless of the state in which they reside. In spite of the abundance of theatre in the Chicago area, there are often reasons to make the trip north: a company's snagging of an impressive guest artist, a set of fresh faces on stage, a new environment in which to see and hear the art, or simply a quick out-of-town getaway.
Skylight Music Theatre is a 56-year-old company that was a storefront theater for its first 33 years and has been performing in its own space for the past 22 years. The 360-seat Cabot Theatre resembles an 18th century European opera house in miniature and the venue alone offers a change from the Chicago music theater scene, which is mainly a dichotomy between hyper-intimate storefronts of 50-80 seats and venues seating 1000 or more. Notwithstanding the occasional musical produced at midsized venues like the Court, Northlight, and the regular season at the Mercury Theater, Chicago audiences don't have much opportunity to see a musical or opera in an intimate setting that is still large enough for significant production values and decent sized orchestras, in a space acoustically designed for music performance.
This company's repertoire is a mix of musicals (new pieces as well as Golden Age classics), operettas, operas, and revues. With My Fair Lady, they've taken on arguably the best of the Golden Age musicals and certainly one of the toughest to pull off and most expensive to produce, given the demand for elaborate Edwardian era period costumes. Then there's the matter of comparisons to the performances of Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn preserved in the 1964 film. This Skylight production handles all the challenges, with strong performances in the lead roles and a gorgeous production highlighted by the costumes of guest artist Chris March, a Project Runway finalist and designer of some of the outrageous costumes for San Francisco's Beach Blanket Babylon.
Their Higgins is Norman Moses, Milwaukee's go-to leading man for musicals for several decades. The role fits him perfectly, and while he has the wry cynicism of the character created originally by George Bernard Shaw for the source play Pygmalion, Moses gives Higgins more energy and volume than was present in Harrison's more world-weary take. On top of that, Moses is a singer where Harrison wasn't, and we get to hear more of the actual melodies Frederick Loewe wrote but that were largely sung-spoken by Harrison. While Moses is the only Equity member in the cast, it should be noted that the relative paucity of Equity productions in Milwaukee leads many professionals to eschew union membership, and thus lack of an Equity card should not be viewed as a lesser status in this city.
Indeed, the production's Eliza, Natalie Ford, has performed leads with Chicago's Light Opera Works as well as appearing in productions with some the city's professional companies including Drury Lane and Marriott. She's as charming, funny, and musically satisfying an Eliza as one could hope for and manages the tricky task of making Eliza a consistent personality even as she transitions from lower-class flower girl to a presentable lady. Among the supporting characters, the opera world's Tom Mulder is a boyish Freddy Eynsford-Hill with a soaring tenor, though he struggles a bit in his lower register for this baritenor role. Rick Richter is entirely convincing as the empathetic Col. Pickering and Joel Kopischke is an earthy and well-sung Alfred Doolittle. The ensemble and 13-piece orchestra directed by Shari Rhoads give flawless performances of the score, even if the ensemble is a little uncertain in their execution of Pam Kriger's dances and their acting in places.
Director Dorothy Danner has taken a faster, punchier tone than we may be used to seeing with this piece, though it isn't an approach that deviates significantly from the norm. The sets by Milwaukee designer Stephen C. Hudson-Mairet are suggestive rather than the hyper-realistic sets audiences might remember from touring productions, but they suit the mid-size stage of the Cabot Theatre. They are big enough to require olio scenes in front of the curtain during major scene changesor maybe this is just a salute to the way stagecraft was done back in the day My Fair Lady premiered, before computerized, mechanized scenes changes revolutionized stagecraft.
A good production of My Fair Lady is always worth seeing, and this is a good production. But what makes it worth a trip out of town to see it are the costume designs by Chris March. They rival the legendary Cecil Beaton costumes in their detail and beauty, but there's a special bonus. For the Ascot scene, March has created a parade of hats that are a show in themselves. There's a sundial hat, a lamppost hat, a painter's palette and brush hat and moreall in the style of the hats for the long-running San Francisco revue Beach Blanket Babylon, for which he has contributed costume, hat, and wig designs for many years (he's now a New York-based designer who's created costumes for Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Cirque du Soleil). One could argue that they take the audience out of the show, but they add a whimsical and satiric touch that makes a statement about the scene. You suspect that the competitive upper-crust elites attending the Ascot opening day might have worn March's hatseach a bit more ostentatious than the one beforejust to one-up each other at the event. Shaw might well have winked in approval at this sly dig at the British aristocracy.
My Fair Lady will play the Skylight Music Theatre's Cabot Theatre, in the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee, through December 27, 2015. Tickets are available online and by calling 414-291-7800. More information at www.skylightmusictheatre.org.