Come From Away

The company of Come From Away at Seattle Rep. Photograph by Chris Bennion.

The holidays came early for musical theatre mavens this season with two superlative, locally produced musicals; one of which is most assuredly destined for Broadway, and one which is rumored for a revival with Colin Firth in top-billing. Both shows clearly demonstrate that, though developed nearly 60 years apart, it’s the craftsmanship that makes a great musical great.

Seattle Repertory Theatre is breaking records and packing in the crowds with the new musical Come From Away, the biggest critical and audience hit for the company in recent memory. This show firmly establishes that the Rep can put on a helluva big musical if it’s entrusted to the right hands.

Following a clarifying, developmental workshop held at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, and a previous tryout at the LaJolla Playhouse earlier this year (the musical is a co-production between Seattle Rep and LaJolla Playhouse,) the Seattle run opened to the kind of huzzas Broadway producers only dare dream of. Fashioned from the true story of Gander, a small Newfoundland community playing host to 38 commercial aircraft after the World Trade Center attacks, Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein created a laughter-laden, heart-wrenching, wildly entertaining tribute to international cooperation and the power of the human spirit.

In the most impressive ensemble cast I have seen since the Broadway company of Pacific Overtures forty years ago, there is no single standout. That would be short-shrifting someone. Eric Ankrim, Petrina Bromley, Jenn Colella, Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, Kendra Kassebaum, Chad Kimball, Lee McDougall, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, and Sharon Wheatley all shine collectively and in their individual moments, especially Collella, Kimball, Samayoa, and Wheatley. The stories they share, derived from interviews with actual Gander residents and the plane’s passengers, are masterfully adapted by Sankoff and Hein. The score is rich, varied and an amazing achievement by such a young team. Christopher Ashley’s swift yet detailed direction is of a high order, Ian Eisendrath’s musical direction is superb, and the onstage band plays with vigor and great vivacity. The choreography by Kelly Devine is beyond rousing, and endlessly creative. Beowulf Borritt’s scenic design is spare and masterful, supported by the ace lighting design of Howell Binkley. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James has a good handle on what we were wearing 14 short years ago.

I predict Come From Away may hold off on a Broadway run to the 2016-2017 season when they won’t have to go head to head with Hamilton for the prizes, though if any show in recent memory could upset that critical behemoth, it is surely Come From Away. The production runs through December 23, 2015 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer Street in Seattle Center. Go to seattlerep.org for ticket information and more.

My Fair Lady

Allison Standley (Eliza Doolittle), Priscilla Hake Lauris (Mrs. Higgins), and Mark Anders (Henry Higgins). My Fair Lady Production photo. © 2015 Tracy Martin.

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady ran on Broadway ran for 2,717 performances, breaking a record set in the 1940s. Though many shows by since have outrun it, few have outdone this literate, lyrical, and musically marvelous adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Issaquah’s Village Theatre, which last produced the show about a decade and a half ago, has not so much revived this evergreen title as renewed it. Pulitzer/Tony award-winning Broadway librettist and lyricist Brian Yorkey, a past staff member and frequent director at VT, has done his best work to date on this swift-moving, reverential, but never embalmed production.

Anyone who knows anything about musicals on stage or film (the My Fair Lady movie won 8 Oscars in 1964 and was a box-office bonanza) knows the tale of this charmingly feisty, cockney, flower girl. It’s a long show, as written, but who would cut more than a verse or two of the entire stunning Lerner and Loewe score? Not Yorkey and company, who made their edits wisely and well. The show gallops along and rarely stops for a trot unless required thanks to Tim Symons and Bruce Monroe’s mellifluous string-based orchestra, and Kathryn Van Meter’s fleet-footed and never stodgy choreography, in which all of London does indeed seem to dance all night.

You need a cast up to the challenges set forth by Shaw, Lerner, and Loewe for a truly triumphant My Fair Lady, and Yorkey’s cast is all of that and in some cases, more. Allison Standley’s stellar performance as Eliza Dolittle is one case of the “more” I refer to. Having seen at least a dozen versions of My Fair Lady through the years, I had yet to see one Eliza whose natural cockney side was up to her transformed Society Lady side. One or the other tended to be superior. Standley’s characterization of Eliza is all of one piece, from her accents to her mannerisms. The great Lerner and Loewe songs she stands accountable for, including Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?, I Could Have Danced All Night, Show Me, and Without You, are all sung with beauty and brio and acted with panache.

Mark Anders’ Henry Higgins is, at first impression, a bit too young-looking and a bit too Oscar Wildean for Shaw. It’s hard to hear the Higgins songs thoroughly sung as years of conditioning via the Rex Harrison model (and most, who have followed it) dictate the tunes be talk-sung, but Anders ultimately makes the role his own thanks in large part to his effortless camaraderie with Dan Kremer’s Colonel Pickering. His closing delivery of I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face and final moments with Eliza are the pinnacle of musical theatre magic (deftly directed by Yorkey as well).

Kremer’s Pickering is simply nonpareil, the role fitting him like a glove, and when he, Anders, and Standley cavort to The Rain in Spain you can almost see Lerner and Loewe gazing down from a heavenly box seat smiling.

John-Patrick Lowrie is a twinkly eyed, charming, charlatan as Eliza’s scheming yet sympathetic cockney papa Alfred Dolittle, and his With a Little Bit of Luck, and especially Get Me to the Church On Time, as choreographed by Ms. Van Meter are real rousers.

Randy Scholz happily makes Eliza’s love-struck suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill less of a dandified dullard and more of a likable young fellow intoxicated with a girl whose sort he has never come across before. His On the Street Where You Live is another in the long-line of musical highlights of this production. Even the non-musical characters are embodied by stellar performers, including Priscilla Hake Lauris’ witty,caustic and wise Mrs. Higgins, Gretchen Krich’s warm yet by the book housekeeper Mrs. Pearce and Eric Polani Jensen’s smarmily unctuous Zoltan Karpathy.

Bill Forrester’s sets be they the Covent Garden Flower market, Higgins’ digs, or the boxes at the running of the Ascot are the perfect mating of the factual with the fanciful, complimented beautifully by a grand lighting design by Tom Sturge, and sound design by Brent Warwick. Costume designer Cynthia Savage is out does herself with costumes that offer a tip of the hat to Cecil Beaton’s grand originals with flourishes and color choices all her own.

With The Sound of Music opening on Friday at 5th Ave Theatre, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flying for the kids at Seattle Children’s Theatre, the holiday musical season is brimming with goodies, and Come From Away and My Fair Lady are arguably the hot tickets. My Fair Lady runs through Jan. 3 at Village Theatre, Issaquah, and Jan. 8-31 at Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave. Visit villagetheatre.org or call 425-392-2202 for tickets and info.