Backstage with Montana Shakespeare in the Parks and “My Fair Lady”

The stage wasn’t set. The seats weren’t taken. Only one actor was in his place. But such is how it goes during an average rehearsal, and Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ production of “My Fair Lady” is no different. Actor Jeff Meyer spent the hour repeatedly belting out his solo, “On the Street Where You Live,” while his director listened with complete, undivided attention. Upon completion of each rendition, the sudden silence was punctuated by Meyer’s own self-deprecating laughter in anticipation of director Kevin Asselin’s comments.

“How’d you feel about that one?” Asselin asked Meyer.

“Maybe ‘towering’ should be empowering,” Meyer said, referring to a word from the song, “and ‘overpowering’ should be — ah, what’s the word — sobering.”

He performed the song again, editing his emotional performance accordingly. When he hit the word “towering,” Meyer — embodying the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill — sailed across the stage, confident in his love for Eliza Doolittle. When “overpowering” arrived only a few moments later, his attitude shifted downwards, adding yet another layer to Meyer’s performance.

Critiquing two words might seem like nit-picking, but good actors know it’s all part of the process of creating a deep character and rich performance. This production of “My Fair Lady” features four professional, non-local actors — two of whom are from New York, one who is a part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Meyer, who is from Chicago — in addition to a collection of actors from the Bozeman community. “The goal was to bring in working, professional talent and integrate them with our community and university talent in the hopes of creating a unique education experience for everybody,” said Asselin, the director of “My Fair Lady” and executive artistic director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.

“My Fair Lady” tells the story of Henry Higgins, a professor who specializes in language and grammar, and Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl. After Eliza’s dreadful speech horrifies Higgins, he makes the claim that he could fix her speech and turn her into a proper lady with just a few months of lessons. Much to Higgins’ surprise, Eliza takes him up on his offer. “My Fair Lady” is a musical based on the play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, and performing it in the Black Box Theatre has presented unique difficulties that Asselin has fully embraced.

“I was intrigued by the challenge of taking such a huge musical and making it work in such a small space, and I think it’s coming together pretty well,” Asselin said. “A lot of [Shaw’s] material works incredibly well in intimate spaces because of the nature of relationship and 3-dimensional characters that are remarkably drafted, similar to Shakespeare … what you have is basically ‘Pygmalion’ lifted on the page and put on to ‘My Fair Lady.’”

A typical production of “My Fair Lady” features a variety of location changes, and anyone familiar with the small, intimate stage at the Black Box Theatre can see why shifting between a study, a garden, a ball and a horse race would be problematic. But Asselin worked with a set designer, a lighting designer and a costume designer to create “a universal concept, in terms of location” that is somewhat flexible and “gives the audience, not a literal translation of space, but rather, [entices] the audience to visually come up with their own idea of what the space may look like.”

The size of the theatre has truly energized the production, since it creates a level of intimacy with spectators that most stage productions lack. “[The Black Box] is an amazing theatre that brings story into the laps of our audience,” Asselin said.

This production of “My Fair Lady” veers from other productions in several other key ways, as well, including its music. The music was rearranged by the production’s music director — who hails from Chicago — to accommodate the Black Box space. Instead of a massive, sweeping orchestra, this production of “My Fair Lady” features a six-piece chamber orchestra composed of MSU faculty and members of the Bozeman community. None of the singers are using microphones, but they’ve managed to find an excellent balance with the orchestra so neither is drowning out the other.

“The music for a lot of the singers has a very spoken quality to it that I think will work incredibly well with our audience members in this space,” Asselin added.

“My Fair Lady” marks the second collaboration between Montana Shakespeare in the Parks and Intermountain Opera, the first being last February’s production of “The Man of La Mancha.” The goal of that initial collaboration, according to Asselin, was “to produce a musical at the highest production value they could offer.” After the success of “The Man of La Mancha,” everyone involved was eager to recreate the experience of putting a grand musical into such an intimate setting, and that’s how “My Fair Lady” came to be.

“My Fair Lady” will be in the Black Box Theatre from February 12-28. Students tickets are $10 and general admission is $25.