Arts & Culture

Review: 'My Fair Lady' sparkles on TCR stage

Lavish musical opens troupe's 85th season in regal style

Eliza Doolittle (Angela Billman, center) raises upper crust eyebrows as she cheers on Dover during the Ascot horse races in “My Fair Lady.” The lavish musical is onstage through Oct. 6 at Theatre Cedar Rapids. (Struttmann Photo)
Eliza Doolittle (Angela Billman, center) raises upper crust eyebrows as she cheers on Dover during the Ascot horse races in “My Fair Lady.” The lavish musical is onstage through Oct. 6 at Theatre Cedar Rapids. (Struttmann Photo)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Forget “fair.”

“My Fair Lady” is the most elegant production I’ve seen at Theatre Cedar Rapids in a very long time.

It’s the perfect way to usher in the community troupe’s 85th season, and remind us how deep and wide the artistic pool is in our corner of the world. From the overture downbeat to the final bows, everything about this show is polished and gorgeous, rivaling anything you’ll see on a professional stage from here to New York.

Clocking in at three hours during Thursday’s final dress rehearsal, it feels a tad long in the second half, but it’s definitely worth the wait to see a sweet and touching ending. It’s ever so much more satisfying than the original ending in which a still-smug Henry Higgins basically orders Eliza Doolittle to fetch his slippers. I’ve seen the ending tweaked several ways over the years, and TCR’s is the best.

Other changes are more subtle, with Aaron Murphy making his Higgins a little less of a jerk by removing most of the demeaning names he hurls at Eliza as he transforms her from a lowly “guttersnipe” into a proper English lady. He still lobs a few insults in the process of “correcting” Eliza’s speech, giving Angela Billman plenty of reasons to react with great umbrage and ire. Director Angie Toomsen guides this tangled tango well, making the situations a little more palpable, so audiences won’t just hate Higgins.

Like everyone onstage, Murphy and Billman are perfectly cast in their leading roles. They turn in brilliant performances, in which Eliza charms everyone she meets as she chips away at Higgins’ armor and pulls him down from his high horse.

This production retains all the memorable melodies — performed expertly by a 15-piece orchestra under Benjamin Schmidt’s baton — and surrounded by Erin Helm’s playful choreography. The vocals, prepared by music director Cameron Sullenberger, are spot-on, with gorgeous solos, lavish choral sounds and tight quartet harmonies.

The dazzle continues with spectacular scenery and lighting designed by S. Benjamin Farrar, whose work has graced the Riverside Theatre stage in Iowa City. Layers of massive, intricate scrollwork frame the stage like exquisite European lace.

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With the show’s many settings, scenery pieces roll on and off or turn around to cleverly take audiences to various indoor and outdoor locations, from the Covent Garden public square where Eliza sells her flowers, to Higgins’ upper-class home full of servants, and on to a Buckingham Palace ballroom.

Joni Sackett’s costumes are breathtaking, whether wrapping the characters in rags or riches. The Ascot Gavotte is a work of art. It’s the lovely and hilarious scene where England’s elite don their fanciest attire and feathered hats to watch the horse races — and where Eliza raises all the eyebrows as her Cockney past slams into the upper-crust realm she’s entering under Higgins’ tutelage.

Billman’s thrilling soprano brings tears to your eyes beginning with “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and continuing through the sheer joy of “I Could Have Danced All Night” in Act I. At the end of the show, Murphy’s take on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is utterly human and heartbreaking.

Other elite performances come from Greg Smith as linguist Colonel Pickering, who champions Eliza and tries to tone down Higgins; Brett Borden as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, who lights up the stage with every teetering step he takes; and Sage Spiker as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who is totally smitten with Eliza and romances the audience with “On the Street Where You Live.” Cherryl Moon Thomason as Higgins’ mother adds a delicious dash of scorn aimed at her son, not Eliza.

This bold and beautiful production will earn every cheer and standing ovation on the stage where it lives through Oct. 6.

If you go

• What: “My Fair Lady”

• Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: To Oct. 6; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

• Tickets: $25 to $40, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org

• Extra: ASL interpreted performance Oct. 6; call the box office to purchase reserved seats

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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