“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain…”
A vocal exercise emphasizing the vowels of genteel English speech ultimately becomes a musical number in tango tempo in My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s famed musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
While authentic accents are always an asset in suspending audience disbelief in that artistic sleight-of-hand known as theatre, it’s rare that accents become the lynchpin of the story.
But that’s just the case in this classic, set in Edwardian-era London, and currently running in the Alan Brown Great Hall in Southridge Senior School, tonight and Friday (Feb. 28-March 1) at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday (March 2-3) at 2 p.m.
Egotistical phoneticist Henry Higgins wagers that he can take feisty Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle, and so transform her with voice training (and pointers on deportment) that he can pass her off as a ‘lady’ of the ruling classes.
With a subject so hinged on the difference between accents as a determinant of social standing, My Fair Lady is likely to pose challenges to any professional theatre company outside Britain, let alone aspiring actors in a secondary school.
Fortunately, the keen students of Southridge’s ambitious drama program, headed by former professional actress Jennifer Kelly – and recently recognized with a best-in-zone win in the Surrey One-Act Drama Festival – are no strangers to challenging period productions.
Or English accents, either. Last year’s major production, Our Country’s Good, set in colonial Australia in the 1780s, had students immersing themselves in both the Cockney tones of the convict colony and the more upper-crust accents of the military governor and his Royal Marine officers, thanks in part to coaching from Kelly’s theatre connections.
The challenge for My Fair Lady is not just a matter of capturing the sound of the speech, Kelly acknowledges, but also the particular timbre of 1912.
“It’s about finding the character development and character analysis, not just for the roles, but also for the time period,” she said.
“We’re really lucky that the students have been working very hard in that particular area.”
Helping drive the show, she said, is the authoritative performance of Grade 12 student Carson Van Noot, who played a leading role in Our Country’s Good, as the pompous Higgins.
“And we have two wonderful Grade 10 students also playing leads – Nicole Moretto as Eliza and Neil Adams as Higgins’ friend Colonel Pickering,” Kelly said.
“She has a beautiful singing voice and Nick is playing Pickering in a very subtle way.”
The irony of the show, Kelly said, is that while it’s ostensibly about Higgins transforming Eliza, it’s really about how the spirited girl transforms him and “touches his heart.”
Also featured in the cast are Sarah Kavanaugh as Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, Chelsea Andreou as Higgins’ imperious mother and David Wei as the transformed Eliza’s ardent upper-class suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill.
“David, who’s in Grade 12, has never been on stage before, but he’s very excited about making his first theatrical appearance,” Kelly said.
The 23 members of the cast, mostly students from Grades 8 to 12, also includes several teachers – among them science and physical education teacher Paul Doig.
“He plays Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, and he’s fantastic,” said Kelly.
“We really wanted this to be an inclusive production, and I thought it would be great to have teachers and students sharing the stage.”
Helping with the historic atmosphere, aided by creative lighting and some well-chosen furniture, is an authentic-looking costume plot of some 350 pieces assembled with the help of the Costume Bank in North Surrey.
“All except for a parasol – one of our art teachers made that,” Kelly said.
Kelly is serving triple duty as director, choreographer and musical director for the show, which, wisely, is using professional, pre-recorded music tracks for a background to the singing and dancing of the chorus and principals.
“I really like the script, I love Shaw, and this is a timeless classic,” she said.
“I think the cast have really dedicated themselves and committed themselves to the show; to learning about character and physical movement and vocal expression.
“They’ve done intensive rehearsals three days a week after school, and all through lunch hours, since January.”
Tickets ($10) are available online at www.southridge.bc.ca or by calling 604-535-5056 (or at the door).
Southridge’s winning play from the Surrey One-Act Drama Festival, the four-character Doubt: A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley, will go on to compete in the B.C. Drama Educators’ Festival May 2-5 in New Westminster.