“My Fair Zombie”: A Fun Spin on an Old Classic
By Ian Huffam
“My Fair Zombie” is certainly not a sophisticated musical in the traditional sense, but it’s clear that Brett Kelly knows how to put together a show.
If you didn’t infer it from the title, “My Fair Zombie” takes the stuffy pedigree of the iconic Broadway musical “My Fair Lady” and twists it with the decidedly less stuffy (but becoming somewhat passé?) zombie uprising trend that first made a splash with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Instead of teaching a Cockney flower girl how to pass as a member of the upper classes, professor Henry Higgins makes a bet with his new friend Colonel Pickering that he can teach a zombie girl to not only pass herself off as living, but also as a proper lady. Despite the unlikelihood of success, the zombie (whom they christen as “Eliza”) makes a spectacular transformation and now must deal with the question of where she can go once the experiment is over.
As a sort of parody of “My Fair Lady” (and “Pygmalion”, the George Bernard Shaw play on which the Broadway musical was based), elements from the originals sometimes come through and sometimes don’t, playing on audience expectations for those familiar with the material. The foppish and ineffective Freddy Eynesford-Hill still falls in love with Eliza (despite her projectile vomiting during their first meeting), “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” still gets said many times, and Higgins’ servants sing about their concern with his ‘project.’ Gone though is Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle (mentioned only in a curious afterthought of Eliza’s; there was apparently something to do with entrails), and any mention that might explicitly tie this show to My Fair Lady, particularly the songs. I do wonder why the programme doesn’t give any credit to Shaw, since nearly the entire first scene and most of the first act is lifted verbatim from his script, even in places where it doesn’t need to – Higgins’ delightfully sadistic explanation of how the experiment is to be carried out to Eliza (“You are going to live in this house for the next six months, learning to speak beautifully like a lady in a shop…”) is kept, but only after zombie Eliza exits so Higgins is forced to say it to Pickering instead. The passage feels like it was kept just for the sake of being able to use it – Shaw was a brilliant writer and it’s a pleasure to hear one of his darker passages being delivered with aplomb from Lawrence Evenchick, but Shaw for the sake of Shaw is a very different attitude from the one this show is selling.
The writing is admittedly the weakest part of “My Fair Zombie”; the performers are fantastic down to the mini-chorus of the undead. Most impressive is Robin Hodge as Eliza, who goes from slouching on her hands and knees and snarling “BRAINS…” at her first entrance to being able to conduct herself gracefully and articulately as a proper Edwardian lady. The transformation from guttersnipe to lady is a little abbreviated, but Hodge shows off the entire character arc of her undead character, even the moment where she looks into a mirror and first realizes that she can still recognize herself. A lot of the humour in this show derives from the juxtaposition of snooty old-fashioned manners meeting the crassness of zombies who only need to satisfy their base instincts, and Hodge plays with this admirably in the scenes where Higgins first tries to get her to recite the alphabet: “A, B, C, D.” “BRAINS!” (It’s a lot funnier when she does it.)
Lawrence Evenchick, as Henry Higgins, has the unenviable job of being the character that has to drive the plot forward amidst all the silliness, which is helped by Higgins being such a thoroughly unpleasant character that most of Higgins’ jokes are directed at him rather than the audience laughing with him. Evenchick keeps the character understated rather than trying to emphasize it, which allows our attention to stay where it should – on Hodge, whose character has actually been altered from Shaw’s original. The character of Higgins is more or less still the way Shaw wrote him, up until the final scene where Kelly’s script deviates into a surprisingly satisfying ending.
The whole company does an excellent job of keeping up energy. Most of the smaller roles (maids, ball guests, partygoers) have one or two lines if any at all, yet the performers still communicate their characters’ thoughts by means of entertaining facial expressions – Nicholas Dave Amott and Lauren Cauchy in particular excel at this, although even Hodge gets in on the facial expressions before her character actually begins to speak. Other standouts in the cast are Joel Elliot as Freddy Eynesford-Hill, whose lovely tenor voice matches the smoothness that he brings to his coasting-by-on-good-looks character, and Fiona Rothwell as housekeeper Mrs. Pearce who maintains her deadpan demeanour even while beheading a corpse to feed Eliza brains.
The songs are not numerous (there are only about 9 or 10 in the whole show) but the music is more complex than might be expected (there’s a French horn in the pit band!). The lyrics are occasionally clever, but they also sometimes delve into the raunchier side of things such as the song that opens the climactic ball, with the characters singing about… sigh… “balls.” I’m not saying silly and raunchy don’t work well together. They don’t, however, always have to be paired together, especially when the humour is already based on a rejection of snooty upper-class values – bringing in vulgarity at this point is to hit the nail on the head with a sledgehammer. Lyrical concerns aside, the performers also have excellent voices, with the opening song in particular boasting some lovely choral singing. Don’t expect anything directly parodying Lerner and Loewe, except maybe Freddy’s song “I Hope She Loves Me (For My Brains)” which recalls “On the Street Where You Live” mostly because they’re both love songs sung by Freddy in Eliza’s absence while he twirls an umbrella (not for musical reasons).
One last thing I must address is the commercial aspect of this show, which was very strong. The marketing team did an excellent job of promoting this show (I knew it was happening several months ago, even though I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what show was currently playing at the Gladstone if you asked me) through both social media and old-fashioned methods. There are feature cocktails at the Gladstone’s bar that tie into the show as per usual, but somewhat unusually for the Ottawa theatre scene there’s also merchandise for sale: DVD copies of the film on which this show is based (the musical My Fair Zombie is based on the film My Fair Zombie, which was also written and directed by Brett Kelly, which was inspired by My Fair Lady, which was in turn based on the 1938 film version of Pygmalion, which was based on the 1912 play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Confused yet?), as well as stress-ball brains with the show’s title stamped on. Tasteless and exploitative of the local arts scene? Far from it. An effective marketing team can make the difference between a successful run and a flop, and merchandise is a way that you can promote the show after it has ended, so that even while working on a new project there’s still promotional material floating around for your work. The stress-brains are an especially nice touch – they’re something people might actually use, their connection to the show is obvious, and they belie a certain sense of humour that is absolutely part of the show. This collaboration between the artistic and the commercial sides of theatre production is a little bit lacking in this city, although there are some signs that this is changing (Ottawa Fringe’s embracing of social media and their awesome poster designs are definitely encouraging).
Is “My Fair Zombie” unoriginal and derivative? Derivative to be sure, but creatively so. All in all, this show is a fun ride that may offend the sensibilities of people who like ‘nice’ art, but if you haven’t laughed out loud at a show in Ottawa in a while, you’ll definitely want to hit this one up.
“My Fair Zombie”
A Brett Kelly Production
At the Gladstone May 4-7, 7:30 pm
Matinee Performance May 7, 2:30 pm
Approximately 2 hours with intermission
Directed by Brett Kelly
Written by Brett Kelly and Trevor Payer
Original Songs and Musical Direction by Stephen Tippet
Produced by Anne-Marie Kelly
Stage Manager: Linda Bedford
Assistant Stage Manager: Doreen McMahon
Lighting Director: Karl Wagner
Sound: Justin Ladelpha
Costume Designer: Maureen Russell
Sewing Assistance: Jackie Frigon, Sue Dacy, Alan Viau, Linda Bedford
Set Construction: Romauld Frigon
Hair: Janice Fitzsimmons
Lead Makeup: Annie Lefebvre
Makeup: Sarah C. Benfield
Publicity: Joel Elliot
Poster Art: Ronn Sutton
Videography: Ron Evans
Choreography: Lauren Cauchy
Dance Advisor: Kendrick Abell
Musicians: Stephen Tippet (keyboards), Marianne Dumas (keyboards), Mary Gellner (percussion), Chris Lucas (bass), and Nicholas Schmidtke (French horn)
Eliza Doolittle: Robin Hodge
Henry Higgins: Lawrence Evenchick
Colonel Pickering: Peter Whittaker
Mrs. Pearce: Fiona Rothwell
Freddy Eynesford-Hill: Joel Elliot
Mrs. Eynesford-Hill: Joyce Landry
Mrs. Higgins: Mary-Ellen Vice
Flower Girl: Abbey Flockton
Rough Man/Father Francis/Ambassador: Nicholas Dave Amott
Little Jim/Bitey: Amelia Abell
Maid/Townsfolk: Lauren Cauchy, Taryn Waldorf, Zoe Towne
Ambassador’s Wife: Zoe Towne
Constable Shaw/Neppomuck: Andrew Galligan
The Undead: Sarah C. Benfield, Robert Mayr, Glena Chao, Morris Rothman