By Jenny Neyman
Triumvirate Theatre director Joe Rizzo knew staging the musical “My Fair Lady” would have its challenges.
It’s a period piece, set around the turn of the century in England, and so would require elaborate, time-period-authentic sets and costumes to set the right mood.
And the script has substance, more than some lighthearted, fluffy-songs-and-a-dance-number offerings in the genera, so the actors would need to convincingly convey emotions and develop subtleties in the characters’ interpersonal relationships. That’s no small feat for high school and middle school students.
But what really had Rizzo worried were the accents. Ten actors that would have to perform not one, but two British accents — both a snooty, high-society, ascot-wearing, melodic, affluent accent and the choppier cockney of the guttersnipe variety.
“There’s only one thing worse than a bad, British accent, and that’s a lot of bad, British accents,” Rizzo said.
But there was strong appeal in doing the play, as well. He liked the show and had never directed it before, and after holding an audition for the characters among his Class Act Troupe cast, he saw they had the ability to pull it off.
“It was something fresh and something new for me, personally, and after watching those kids do a tryout with the piece I knew we could put together a great production,” he said.
As for the challenges, that which does not grate your eardrums only makes you stronger.
Accents are hard, even for adult casts to do it and keep it consistent,” Rizzo said.
The two leads, Lily Arnett and Cole Aaronson, playing Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, turned out to have a knack for accents. That was a lucky directorial blessing in this show, since Professor Higgins has to speak an upper-crust accent flawlessly enough to be a believable diction coach. Miss Doolittle has an even more difficult task — she starts out in cockney and progresses throughout the show to a gentile dialect.
“Those two pretty much had it from day one. It’s kind of a talent with accents. If you’re not good at it, you can develop it, but it takes a whole lot of work,” Rizzo said.
He set the cast to work on it at the beginning of the rehearsal process.
“I gave them an assignment. For an entire week — at home, at school, wherever you are, no matter what the occasion is, you have to speak in a British accent. It went pretty well, but it drove me crazy. I heard from parents who were like, ‘Oh. My. Gosh.’ I said, ‘Well, if we want this to be a great play, then we have to make the sacrifices.’ It seemed to work,” Rizzo said.
The period sets came together through generosity and craftsmanship. Rita Eddy painted a cityscape backdrop for the alley scenes. One of the cast parents, Billy Rhoades, took on the task of crafting rich-looking wood paneling for Higgins’ drawing room, and Bailey’s Furniture donated period-appropriate furniture to finish the look.
The play ends up being a fashion show of Edwardian London dress, in a swirl of suits and ties, flowing skirts and button-up blouses. Chris Cook helped find suitable pieces from the Kenai Performers costume shop, and Rizzo turned to an unlikely-to-say-no source for alterations — his mom, Norma Cooper.
“You put all these things together and you got yourself a pretty cool play,” Rizzo said.
Though he’s happy with how the embellishments have come together, the meat of the show – the acting — has him the most excited.
The performers had their lines down enough to do complete run-throughs of the play two weeks ago, which gives them time to polish and develop the depths of the characters.
“It’s an opportunity to teach kids about good drama and what makes good theater because ‘My Fair Lady’ isn’t just a bunch of surface silliness, it does take on some serious issues of class and the way we treat people and those kinds of things. It’s an opportunity for kids to learn about life by looking at some of those scenes,” Rizzo said. “It’s always interesting when you’re doing a production like that to stop and say, ‘Do you get that? Do you understand what they’re saying there?’ Then explain it and they go, ‘Oh, OK.’ Then the next time they do it 100 times better.”
Aaronson said he’s liked getting into Higgins. The character is loud and brash and imperious, on one hand, but flippant and funny, on the other.
“I think I relate to Higgins in a few ways. Sometimes we don’t exactly take everything so seriously,” he said. “I, myself, love drama. My dream is to become an actor. I like looking for any opportunity to get involved in drama. I think it’s a fun experience.”
Arnett said “My Fair Lady” is one of her favorite musicals, so she was ecstatic to get to play Eliza.
“I love my character. She’s my favorite person in the movie so I was excited when I got the part. I think it’s very neat how she was actually able to change from her old ways to new ways,” Arnett said. “I get to sing a lot. I’m very happy about that because I really like singing. And I like that I get to wear a whole bunch of costumes, there’s a whole bunch of scenes she’s in.”
Being in a small performance space, the show doesn’t have a live orchestra, but all the familiar songs from the musical are in this production. Part of the qualifications for being in the Class Act Troupe is singing ability, so the musical numbers are coming together well, Rizzo said. Arnett’s singing responsibility is weighty, since she performs in most of the songs and has to sing in varying accents, but she’s been up to the task.
“From day one when I started directing this play I thought, ‘No matter what minor flaws there might be in this play, people could come listen to Lily Arnett sing all night long. She emotes when she sings. She gets it, she really does know how to convey the emotion of a piece. It’s pretty remarkable for a kid her age.”
The cast ranges from seventh grade up to high school junior. Also performing are Ben Carstens, Madison Cunningham, Grey Hansen, Dalton Lohrke, Rachel Mackie, Iisha Oftedal, Nicole Reid and Shaylee Rizzo.
“My Fair Lady” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and next weekend Dec. 18 and 19, at Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Tickets are $10 in advance at the Triumvirate Bookstore up to 24 hours before the show, or $12 at the door.
“If folks come they’ll have a delightful time. If you like ‘My Fair Lady,’ you’ll love watching this show,” Rizzo said.