Just Loverly

Sometimes it's hard to understand how the American musical has survived. Countless big-ticket theatrical remakes of children's films such as Beauty and the Beast are enough to make any theater lover swear off the genre forever. But once in a while, the real thing parades into town and reminds us how good a musical can be. Such is the case with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's gorgeous My Fair Lady and its charming Theatre Under the Stars cast.

Based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, the witty, wicked show about social class and the hubris of the rich would be remarkable enough without any music at all. But add in Lerner and Loewe's unforgettable score, and it becomes magic. In My Fair Lady, the poor conquer the rich, and they do it while singing some damn fine songs.

The resourceful Eliza Doolittle (Glory Crampton) begins her story in rags, selling bunches of violets on the street and singing "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" The song conveys her plaintive dreams in simple, bouncy notes: "All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air, with one enormous chair, oh, wouldn't it be loverly?"

Her Cockney accent, captured so perfectly in the wistful song, fascinates the crusty, wealthy linguist Henry Higgins (Paul Schoeffler), who stumbles upon her on the street outside the theater one night. Absurdly arrogant, Higgins bets kindly Colonel Pickering (Jim Bernhard) that he can turn Eliza from "gutter-snipe" into lady in just six months. Both Eliza and the colonel are to move into Higgins's home during the "experiment" to hurry the process along. Confused and offended by Higgins's way of treating her more like an object than a human being, Eliza agrees to the outrageous setup only because she wants to learn how to speak well enough to get off the street and into a proper flower shop.

After being scrubbed down and dressed up by the angelically patient Mrs. Pearce (Marjorie Carroll), Eliza descends Higgins's spiral staircase looking every bit the lady she's supposed to become. Of course, when she opens her mouth to speak, it's clear that Higgins has his "work" cut out for him.

Unlike Audrey Hepburn's rather prim movie star version of Eliza, who seemed more like a princess hiding amongst the poor, Crampton swaggers across the stage and throws her small body around like a tiny sailor, reveling in her brassiness. She rises to a fit of fist-clenching rage when she sings "Just You Wait!" a poor-girl anthem about the revenge she wants to exact on cruel Professor Higgins.

And Schoeffler's Higgins really is an enraging egomaniac -- priggish, self-righteous and devilishly handsome with his dark hair and chest-held-high strut. The ever rational Higgins talk-sings rather than giving in to the romance of music, and his tunes are often about his consternation with the rest of the world. "A Hymn to Him" skewers flighty women; "Why Can't the English?" is a long complaint about the mess that the English language has gotten itself in. Schoeffler handles these terrific monologues-to-music with a funny, pinched, upper-crust air that illustrates the story's point about the blind failings of the rich. But Schoeffler also manages to hint at that confused little boy inside whom Eliza ultimately grows to love.

The supporting characters are also strong in this production. Especially memorable is Ed Dixon as Eliza's ne'er-do-well father, an engaging cad who dances his days away while hardworking Eliza supplies him with the few coins he needs to drink at the local pub. Here again, the music is as good as it gets. Songs such as "With a Little Bit of Luck," sung outside a bar by Mr. Doolittle and his nimble-footed cohorts, are the stuff of great theater.

Glenn Casale's direction punctuates the humor. In one of the best scenes, Higgins brings Eliza to the races, where she strives hysterically to make small talk among the rich. Not only does her diction need to be perfect, but she must also master such fine points as how to handle a cup of tea and a useless umbrella all at once.

Michael Anania's set -- particularly Higgins's mother's garden, which is overhung with enormous cherry boughs in bloom -- is impressive. And Gregory A. Poplyk's costumes show how silly the rich can be (ladies walk about with great moon-shaped hats perched precariously on their heads) as well as how beautiful Eliza ultimately becomes.

But the music -- performed by a wonderful orchestra under the baton of conductor Robert Linder -- is what proves that at least this musical is still worth seeing. Almost every tune, from "Show Me" to "On the Street Where You Live" to "I Could Have Danced All Night," has become a classic, and rightfully so.

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Lee Williams