NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — The Shaw Festival’s main stage was alive with joy and laughter the other night thanks to a sterling revival of an 80-year-old British musical that brought a capacity audience to its feet at the close and clamoring for more
Me And My Girl, which has to do with a chirpy Cockney lad who inherits a title, a place in the House of Lords, and a vast fortune, may seem no more like a piece of piffle at first glance. But it’s catnip for the Downton Abbey crowd. Furthermore, when done with the inventiveness and energy shown by the Shaw in this superb production, its high spirits prove infectious.
By the time Michael Therriault, a high-octane delight in the role of East End boy Bill Snibson, leads his cast colleagues into a rip-roaring rendition of that vintage number, The Lambeth Walk, at the end of the first act, the production’s authority over the material and its audience is complete. Me And My Girl is a show with one fundamental purpose in life — to give pleasure — and it delivers in spades.
Noel Gay’s lively, ingratiating music has been its most durable anchor since Me And My Girl premiered in 1937 with book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber. As for the original book of the musical, distinctly flimsy by today’s standards, it underwent revisions at the hands of Stephen Fry back in the 1980s. That led to a revival that ran eight years in London and ensured Me And My Girl a new lease on life.
It deals, in its own carefree and buoyant way, with that eternal British preoccupation — the class system. Indeed, there are echoes of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, of Professor Henry Higgins and flower girl Eliza Doolittle, in those delicious scenes that see the imperious Duchess of Dene, triumphantly portrayed here by Sharry Flett, attempting to instruct the cheerfully uncomprehending Bill in the art of being a member of the nobility.
Me And My Girl is an essentially happy musical, and you never doubt that there will be a happy resolution to its most burning crisis — whether the newly ordained Earl of Hareford — yes, folks, that’s Billy’s new title — will remain united with the love of his life, Sally Smith.
Sally is played with perky, no-nonsense charm by Kristi Frank, who is equally at home holding the stage on her own with a gentle love ballad like Once You Lose Your Heart or connecting emotionally with Michael Therriault in a beguiling soft-shoe shuffle.
This production is very much of a collective achievement. In director Ashlie Corcoran’s capable and inventive hands, the show’s verve and energy seem effortless. Parker Esse’s witty choreography — equally adept with the gentle romanticism of the Me And Girl dance duet between Therriault and Frank, and the blast-off perfection of The Lambeth Walk — is a continuing revelation. And the ever-reliable Paul Sportelli, in his capacity as music director, has ensured that Noel Gay’s lovely and varied score gets its full due from both cast members and orchestra.
Designer Sue LePage is on board to supply sumptuous costumes that will gladden the hearts of the Downton Abbey set, and others that reflect Bill Snibson’s free-wheeling East End culture. As for Drew Facey’s set, it’s a mischievous delight. His conception of hoity-toity Hareford Hall is dominated by a two-tier gazebo-like “something” that frequently resembles a loopy reworking of the Stratford Festival’s famed centre stage.
This a show that reaffirms the excellence of the Shaw ensemble and the care that a good production like this one will show for even the smallest supporting role — witness, for example, Neil Barclay’s impeccable work as the butler. But one must also celebrate the solid contributions of Jay Turvey, a droll delight as a starchy family lawyer; Elodie Gillett as an aristocratic vamp whose song — Thinking Of No One But Me — illustrates the extent of her designs on the newly wealthy Bill; Kyle Blair, very funny as a feckless young aristo horrified at the thought of having to work for a living; and Ric Reid, an crusty knight of the realm who proves to have a heart of gold.
And finally there’s Sharry Flett, consistently entertaining as the imperious duchess. Long a mainstay of the Shaw company, Flett has rarely been given the opportunity to remind us of her prowess in musical theatre. This year, she’s not only displaying her undeniable accomplishments as an actress but also as a singer. In the current production, her hymn of praise to the old ways of the nobility is a showstopper.
This leaves Michael Therriault, a performer who continues to astonish. This is someone who has played Ariel and Henry VI at Stratford, Gollum in Lord Of The Rings in London’s West End, Motel in Fiddler On The Roof on Broadway, and an outstanding Tommy Douglas on CBC television. Now, we have him donning his dancing shoes. And his nimble-footed song-and-dance numbers, be they the memorable Leaning On A Lamp Post or the irresistible Lambeth Walk, show an ease and spontaneity that seem to arise naturally from a character who is intensely likeable from his first bouncy appearance on stage. Make no mistake about it — Therriault is an irresistible companion for the evening, and that’s ultimately why Me And My Girl works.
(Me And My Girl continues to Oct. 15 at the Shaw Festival. Ticket information at 1 800 511 7429 or shawfest.com)