NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — The Shaw Festival has a spotty record with musicals, whose vocal and physical demands have sometimes exceeded the skills of its classically trained company.
But when it finds one in its wheelhouse – say "Mack and Mabel" in 2007, or its current production of "Me and My Girl" – the result can be thrilling. It certainly is in this revival of a revival of a 1937 piece of West End froth featuring a disarming performance from Shaw Fest neophyte Michael Therriault.
The setup should be familiar to any Shaw fan, as it is a dim echo of the "Pygmalion" story and the "My Fair Lady" story, at which an expertly revised book by Stephen Fry slyly nods. It follows Bill Snibson, a poor Londoner with a heart of gold, as he calibrates his brash manners to his newly acquired position as the 14th Earl of Hareford.
In London as in Los Angeles, more money means more problems, and for Snibson, this surprising windfall entails getting himself in a series of compromising situations. The role, most memorably performed by Robert Lindsay in the West End and Broadway revivals in the 1980s, was written for a master of physical comedy.
And Therriault is just that. His unassuming looks – you might not pick him out of a lineup as leading-man material – lend an essential element of surprise to his performance. And that performance is filled with surprises, from the way he wrings laughter out of some of the worst jokes ever told to his perfect pratfalls and slyly acrobatic prop-handling.
In an example of the low comedy bar set by this show's authors and shamelessly sustained by Fry in his rewrite, Snibson inquires of one character what's in the bowl of liquid he is holding.
"It's bean soup," the man replies. To which Snibson responds: "I don't care what it's been. What is it now?"
Roll your eyes all you want, but it's a testament to the talents of the star and Ashlie Corcoran's candy-colored production that it proves irresistibly funny.
The story, such as it is, is your standard accidental millionaire affair. Snibson finds himself called from the seedy surroundings of his home in Lambeth – a working-class section of South London – to the estate of the Earl of Hareford. He discovers to his disgust that he is the 14th heir to that title, and thus on the receiving end of a substantial fortune.
There's just two catches: He has to behave himself, which he can't. And he can't marry the low-class love of his life, which he refuses to do. Hilarity, set to a shimmering score by Noel Gay with lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, ensues in a variety of fantastical flavors.
Most of the humor flows from Snibson's failed attempts to keep a lid on his Lambeth mannerisms and behaviors, which come out in hilarious spurts despite his best efforts. After spending a morning hunting, he waddles around the stage with his legs forming a permanent oval, and the audience laughs louder with every step.
A comedic pas de deux, in which Therriault tries in vain to evade the romantic advances of Élodie Gillett, a gold-digging society woman, is choreographed to within an inch of its life. But it has the intended effect – the audience in stitches.
It helps as well that the show features a series of irresistible numbers by Gay, the definitive popular songwriter of his era. A highlight is the first-act closer "The Lambeth Walk," delivered by an energetic ensemble whose dancing skills are up to the challenge.
The title number also charms and disarms, demonstrating a genuine chemistry between Therriealt and Kristi Frank, who plays his Lambeth love interest as a kind of lightweight Eliza Doolittle.
You're not going to leave the Shaw's production of "Me and My Girl" ruminating on the eternal problems of society or sorting out your place in the universe. But if you're open to it, you'll likely leave with a tune in your head and a spring in your step.
3.5 stars (out of four)
"Me and My Girl," a British musical comedy, runs through Oct. 15 in the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen's Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $35 to $117. Call 800-511-7429 or visit shawfest.com.