Tracy Neff and Warren Kimmel in the Royal City Musical Theatre production of My Fair Lady. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Tracy Neff and Warren Kimmel in the Royal City Musical Theatre production of My Fair Lady. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Royal City Musical Theatre knows what its audience wants and consistently delivers. This year’s musical is no exception, as its unique mix of professional and community players deliver a solid production of My Fair Lady.

Based on Shaw’s 100+ year-old Pygmalion, My Fair Lady is the 1956 Lerner and Lowe stage musical that went on to spawn the hugely successful film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. An American classic, both on stage and on screen, the story of the young Cockney flower girl looking to better herself still manages to resonate with audiences with its memorable tunes.

But an unparalleled score and nostalgia can only get you so far, and after nearly sixty years My Fair Lady is beginning to show its age, making it increasingly difficult to ignore the misogyny that is inherent in its story. That this play’s sexist undertones is a problem was made even more evident at Sunday’s matinee performance where my guest, who surprised me by saying they had never seen this show before on film or stage, was shocked by its treatment of women.

While of course it is argued that the show’s misogyny comes from a different time and place, and that perhaps Lerner and Loewe may have actually been trying to show us just how much a jerk Henry Higgins and his ilk really are, the fact that someone new to My Fair Lady recognized the play’s misogynistic underpinnings is problematic. And even as Eliza proves herself as strong a woman as any man, in the end she still ends up with Higgins (although kudos to director Max Reimer for not having Eliza actually bring him his slippers).

Of course for die-hard fans of My Fair Lady, any discussion of its antiquated treatment of women can be dismissed, especially when it is done as well as this production. And while that notion may be a tough pill for some of us to swallow, there is no denying that this Royal City Musical Theatre (RCMT)  production delivers the goods.

With any production of My Fair Lady hinging on the performances of its two leads, the combination of Tracy Neff and Warren Kimmel raises this production above the ordinary. Neff’s beautiful voice is matched only by her performance, and Kimmel is simply note perfect as Higgins.

Other stand-outs in a sea of terrific performances includes the other professionals on stage with John Payne doing a spot-on job as Eliza’s father and Barbara Pollard as Henry’s mother, who actually manages to inject some welcome irony (and not a little sarcasm) to help counterbalance some of show’s inherent sexism. Thomas Lamont as Freddy Eynsford-Hill delivers a surprising and beautiful vocal performance in “On The Street Where You Live”.  Michael Wild does a nice job as Colonel Pickering, although at times he appeared to be unsure of how to react to some of Higgins’ stranger rants, and could have easily been an opportunity to inject some additional commentary on some of the show’s more archaic themes.

Alfred Doolittle (John Payne) and his cronies (Peter Stainton and Matt Ramer) are after a little bit of luck. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Alfred Doolittle (John Payne) and his cronies (Peter Stainton and Matt Ramer) are after a little bit of luck. Photo by Tim Matheson.

There is another problem with revivals of shows from this golden era of American musicals, where even the most solid of productions can rarely deliver any real surprises. The RCMT production is no different, with director Reimer, like so many before him, unable to figure out what to do with the gathering ensemble that telegraphs the next big song, and a Royal Ascot Race that is virtually identical to any that have come before it.

Set designer Brian Ball is ambitious, but largely successful with a massive set that transforms from the streets of London to the Higgins household, and Christina Sinosich’s costumes are a delight in contrasts.

One of the biggest successes of this show comes from James Bryson and his 22-piece orchestra who deliver as professional a performance in the pit as the professionals on stage. They are so good in fact that the Overture and Entr’acte are as grand as some of this show’s most memorable songs (if only the audience didn’t feel it was okay to continue talking long after the houselights came down and this superb orchestra began playing).

Now in its 26th year, Royal City Musical Theatre once again delivers, giving audiences what they have come to expect – a solid production of a nostalgic work. But is that enough to sustain it? In the short-term perhaps, but as our population continues to age, are companies like RCMT doing enough to cultivate the next generation of audience with shows like My Fair Lady and its questionable treatment of women?

My Fair Lady, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. Based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Max Reimer. Musical direction by James Bryson. Choreography by Suzanne Ouellette. A Royal City Musical Theatre production on stage at the Massey Theatre (735 Eighth Ave, New Westminster) until April 26. Visit http://royalcitymusicaltheatre.com for tickets and information.