April 5th was Opening Day of the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and I was witness to the birth of a play that day in the Festival Theatre. Not everyone can say that! Well, there were hundreds of us in the audience, so I guess everyone present can say it. I did feel very special, though, as the new Artistic Director, Tim Carroll, gave a short talk before the preview performance of what he called his "first baby at Shaw."
 
“Me and My Girl” is a Depression era musical comedy of manners, class, and love. Carroll said the cast was birthing the play that day, its first performance, and would be learning the show by our responses – when to pause for laughter, when to hurry on when the laughter doesn’t come… Things like that. So, we in the audience were a kind of midwife. I think we did splendidly, laughing in all the right places, cheering on the lovers, and generally adding to the great good humor of this delightful musical comedy. The cast had a much more difficult part to play in this birth, and they did splendidly, too. They will not have to “hurry on” very often, if at all, because this is a very funny, very lively, very engaging comedy.
 
The action, by which I mean the singing, dancing, and cavorting about on stage, takes place in the countryside near London and in the borough of Lambeth. After the death of the old Earl, the estates, money, and title of 14th Earl of Hareford are to go to Lady Jacqueline Carstone, daughter of the widowed Maria, Duchess of Dene, absent a male heir. Jacquie and her fiancé, the Honourable Gerald Bolingbroke who, in fact, is broke, are salivating at the thought of all that money.
 
Then the family solicitor, Parchester, announces that a male heir has been found in the person of one Bill Snibson, son of the late Earl and a cockney girl he had married in secret, since deceased. Jacquie, ever the girl with an eye to the main chance, throws her engagement ring at the simpering Gerald, and in the song “Thinking of No One but Me,” tells him to sell the ring to pay his debts. She is going after the heir. In order to inherit, the heir must be deemed a fit and proper person to the executors, Maria, DoD, and Sir John Tremayne, her friend and long-time would-be lover, in order to inherit. Enter Bill.
 
Bill Snibson is a cockney lad in love with his life of not-quite-legal-when-he-gets-around-to-them jobs. In other words, a bit of a ne’er do well. He is even more in love with Sally Smith, his lovely cockney princess whose job is fishmonger, but whose goal in life is to own a dress shop. When Bill is brought in to meet his aristocratic family, the clash between the classes begins. Bill is astounded to learn that he is an Earl. As he runs, jumps, and rolls around, all the while speaking in his rapid-fire cockney, the various aristocrats are appalled. Michael Therriault’s Bill is a dynamo. He moves like greased lightning, racing all over, singing, dancing, doing pratfalls, throwing antique carafes and dialogue about in a frenzy of motion. Whew! And that is just the beginning. Wait until you see him in the huge scarlet cape and coronet as he prepares for his debut in the House of Lords.
 
The score is by Noel Gay, with original book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, and was updated by Stephen Fry in the 1980s. The dialogue is fast, furious, and hilarious. The history lesson scene between Bill and Sally moves beyond merely funny and into the surreal.  "Joan of Arc.  I know who that is – Noah’s wife." This is just one of many historical inaccuracies that pour out of their mouths in rapid succession. There is a plethora of Cockney rhyming slang – brown bread/dead - and puns and plays on words:
"I buy a new hat when I’m down in the dumps." 
"Oh, so that’s where you find them."
and
"Aperitif?"
"No, I’ve got me own."

As you can see, there is nothing highbrow about this comedy full of highbrows. In a Pygmalion-like scheme, Maria, DoD does her Henry Higgins best to teach Bill how to be a gentleman, while trying to convince him to leave Sally behind. And while Jacquie tries to seduce him, and Sir John tries to get rid of him, Bill never strays from his determination to have Sally with him. Their charming duet “Me and My Girl,” in which they sing and tap dance together is an homage to their love. As everyone knows, you can never go wrong with tap dancing. The rhythmic sound of tapping feet makes you want to get up and join the fun. And there is a boatload of fun and tapping in “Me and My Girl.”

The large cast is definitely up to the task set them by Director Ashlie Corcoran and Music Director Paul Sportelli. The ensemble sings and dances expertly, moving the story along with enthusiasm and style. The rousing first act finale, “The Lambeth Walk,” is a show-stopper, with the Lambeth folk in their pearly king and queen costumes dancing with the aristocrats in their sequins and pearls. Elodie Gillett is first rate as the gold digger Jacquie, as is Jay Turvey as Parchester. Neil Barclay’s Hethersett is the quintessential English Butler. Kristi Frank brings a cockiness, determination, and quiet maturity to her role as Sally. Ric Reid as Sir John and Sharry Flett as Maria, DoD, spar wonderfully together, and the hapless Gerald is well played by Kyle Blair.
 
The heart of this musical that pokes fun equally at the high and the low is, in the words of Ms. Corcoran, that “it explores the transformative power that steadfast and committed love has over the entire group - no matter what class, age, gender or background.” And that it does, with great energy and great fun. What might you be willing to do to become an Earl or Duchess?
 
In previews until May 25. Runs from May 26 to October 15.
 

Me and My Girl

Wed Apr 5th - Sun Oct 15th
Shaw Festival Theatre
10 Queen’s Parade Niagara-on-the-Lake, NY L0S 1J0
Can a Cockney man give up his old life – and love! – to join the upper class? The sparkling and fun British hit musical. This delightful comic romp from the thirties follows the fortunes of… details »