*** ½ out of 4 stars
Using the opening line “Once upon a time . . . ” for anything risks conjuring too-familiar fairytales. But in Ford Theatre’s production of Sabrina Fair, director Stephen Rayne and a likable cast take the sweetness and whimsical romance of childhood tales and spike them with wit, intelligence, and humor.
The story is the stuff of typical romantic comedy, except this is one of the original classics. After five years in Paris, a once-timid chauffeur’s daughter, Sabrina, returns—grown up and made over—to the Larabee family’s sprawling seaside estate where she spent her youth. She enchants the Larabees’ two sons, the ruthless businessman Linus Jr. (Todd Gearhart) and the charmingly romantic David (Tom Story). Both had ignored her before her transformation, but now she finds herself forced to choose between them.
Susan Heyward takes on the title role—in earlier productions, it’s been played by Audrey Heburn and Julia Ormond—with energy and sweetness. But in a show that’s arguably all about her, it’s the ensemble that really shines. As Linus Jr., Gearhart emanates a sexy confidence that makes it hard to believe Sabrina spent her childhood fawning over David. Story is charming as the younger brother, and John Down and Helen Hedman are perfectly cast as their parents.
In an effort to add new depth to the classic story, Rayne cast African-American actors (a decision highlighted in the program) in the roles of Sabrina and her father, but he made no changes to the original script. The change might have been an opportunity to explore race in 1950s Long Island, though it would have been a tricky balance with the show’s light, romantic tone. But the play never takes advantage of the choice, focusing on class instead.
The set and staging choices aren’t surprising, but they’re well-executed. White patio furniture and ivy-draped stone invite the audience into the Larabees’ sun-dappled life of luxury. The realistic lighting is especially well-done. And the form-fitting mid-century costumes rival those on Mad Men.
At Ford’s Theatre through October 24. Tickets ($39 to $55) are available here.