By Pat Launer
Talk about your Extreme Makeovers!
There was never a sculptural re-molding of a human lump of clay like the Greek Metatmorphosis myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, brilliantly refashioned by George Bernard Shaw into the play, “Pygmalion,” which then underwent another transformation, into the magnificent Lerner and Lowe musical, “My Fair Lady.” The book and lyrics may be credited to Alan Jay Lerner, but many of the lines were penned by that word-genius, Shaw.
The 1956 show is a colossus, a classic by any definition, one of the all-time greatest musicals. And because practically every song is familiar (this new production features several singalong moments), you may feel like you’ve seen it, you know it, you’re done with it.
But you simply must shake those feelings off, because the Cygnet Theatre production is superb, like a fresh visit from an old, refurbished friend, a wonderfully pared-down version that makes the music, story and characters pop out like intimate new acquaintances.
You remember the gambit: Linguistics professor Henry Higgins hears a dirty-faced flower girl yowling in her lower-class Cockney dialect, and he haughtily asserts that, given six months time, he can pass her off as a duchess at Buckingham Palace. Col. Pickering, a fellow phonetics-lover, makes it a bet. The subject of their wager, one Eliza Doolittle, is treated precisely like the aforementioned lump of clay: pushed and prodded and re-shaped to meet upper crust standards.
Coursing through all Higgins’ dastardly machinations are the most marvelous songs: “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Wouldn’t it be Loverly,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and the two raucous comical numbers, “With a Little Bit o’ Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” the last two sung by Eliza’s hard-drinking, fun-loving, amoral father, Alfred P. Doolittle, magnificently and hilariously played by Ron Choularton. He and Tom Stephenson (a solid and compassionate Pickering) and Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray (as Higgins) are reprising their roles from Cygnet’s 2006 production.
Murray is a wonder. He’s honed his character to a fine point (Higgins is a sharp-tongued, supercilious prig), and makes much more use of his rich, resonant baritone (for the most part, eschewing the sing-speak precedent set by the non-singer Rex Harrison in the original Broadway production and the 1964 film).
Murray’s stellar performance is hard to match. Vocally, Allison Spratt Pearce is right there with him; she has a stunning, wide-ranging soprano. Her acting is quite convincing, too, as she has proved in local productions of “The Sound of Music” (San Diego Musical Theatre), “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night” (The Old Globe), among others. And she has Broadway cred, to boot. The only gripe is her early-scenes Cockney accent. It’s just not as broad and ear-piercing as described, so the transition to faux ‘Oxbridge’ dialect is less pronounced than it could be.
The hard-working, mega-talented ensemble of six seems like two or three times that number (How do they make those split-second changes from smudge-faced, grimy underclass to bedecked bluebloods? Remarkable). They sing (excellently), they cavort, they change dialects on a dime, they dance (Katie Whalley Banville, who serves as assistant to ace choreographer David Brannen, is the terpsichorean standout). Linda Libby is a hoot, Charles Evans, Jr. gets to show off his charm and mellifluous voice (“On the Street Where You Live”) and Brian Banville, Ralph Johnson and Debra Wanger provide superb support.
The staging is clever throughout. Murray does impressive double-duty as star and director (assisted by Patrick McBride).
There’s a joyfulness throughout, a clear sense that the outstanding ensemble is enjoying this every bit as much as we are. The humor is incisive, the class distinctions are patently obvious (Shaw’s social commentary is underscored by the delightful costumes of Jeanne Reith and the wigs/makeup of Peter Herman).
The sound (Matt Lescault-Wood) is crisp, the music direction (Patrick Marion) expert, with the six-piece band (including Marion on keyboards) sounding commensurately larger than its size, too (that trumpet really adds a lot to the mix).
Every opportunity for a dance interlude or musical reprise is gleefully taken, so the evening stretches out to three hours. But the production is so fleet-footed and engaging, it flies by.
Even if you’re not a musical theater-lover, this irresistible “Lady” will surely transform you.
- “My Fair Lady” runs through April 26 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town
- Performances are Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
- Tickets (starting at $39) are available at 619-337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com
- Running time: 3 hrs. (including intermission)
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.