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My Fair Lady from Masquerade Theatre: Abso-blumin'-lutely Loverly

The setup: By George, Masquerade Theatre's done it! The crown jewel of Broadway musicals -- one of its most renowned and beloved -- receives a setting worthy of Tiffany. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's legendary musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's most magical and popular play, Pygmalion, has been smothered in accolades ever since its premiere in 1956. Sir George would be proud of this one, all right. Masquerade Theatre polishes this gem until it sparkles.

The execution: Shaw was an exacting critic long before he became a playwright, so before we're inundated under all the celebratory streamers of this review's victory parade, let's get some pesky quibbles out of the way. First, they are only six members in the orchestra. This does scant justice to those rich and creamy orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang, two of Broadway's most acclaimed musicians. It's difficult to get that grand emotional heft during the conclusion of Act I, as Eliza descends the staircase dressed in her shimmering white gown ready to do battle at the embassy ball, with only piano as leading accompaniment, no matter how ardently played by the competent sextet. We should be lifted out of our seats and floating near the ceiling by this point. We get a little misty, thanks to the marvelous actors and what a marvel of construction this work is, but the tears of joy don't quite come.

Some of this letdown may also be due to the wan, unfocused lighting. Any action on the upstage hallway of Higgins's townhouse is woefully underlit, leaving us to wonder why anyone plays there at all, it's so dark and uninteresting. A little bit of light upstairs would raise our hearts immeasurably.

Other than those complaints, the evening is an unbridled success, full of definitive performances, rousing dance numbers, a stunning Ascot scene and Masquerade's patented brand of performing that lets us, the audience, share the actors' delight in putting on a show. The joy has always been infectious, but in this production it's kicked into overdrive. Spirit and heart are the unbeatable qualities of Masquerade, and My Fair Lady blooms under its loving hands -- it's a veritable garden!

Kristina Sullivan, so sublime whenever she appears, goes one better in this. The vocals lie in her sweet spot, and she deftly tosses off the Cockney lilt of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," the Fury's tempest of "Show Me" and "Without You," and the dawning romance of "I Could Have Danced All Night." That she's an Edwardian eyeful in her Cecil Beatonesque Ascot gown, all furbelowed in black and white with gargantuan hat, only aids in the believable transformation from guttersnipe to woman. Company stalwart Luther Chakurian gives priggish snob Henry Higgins a no-nonsense attitude, seemingly unconcerned with anyone but himself. Once confronted by Eliza, who actually pierces his armor, he roars into life realizing what he has unleashed -- he likes it. He may have elevated her, but she has made him human.

The rest of the cast is just as impressive. Dominic Abney overlays gruff yet clear-eyed chimney sweep Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father, with a raspy gravel. But there's a devilish twinkle beneath the soot. He's a life force, with his "Get Me to the Church on Time" a rousing hymn to his reluctance to enter the middle class and share its morality. Cole Ryden is a sweet-voiced, ardently silly Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza's suitor, who can take a pratfall like Buster Keaton and still manage to croon "On the Street Where You Live" with passionate conviction. Allison Sumrall, as Mrs. Higgins, another of Shaw's very practical mothers, shades her line readings just so to give this imposing character a deeply felt center; while Adam Delka's Colonel Pickering seems the very model of a modern major general, or at least a Shavian one, who gives hope to Eliza by the example of his good breeding in how he treats her. The entire ensemble throws off warm-hearted sparks, especially the four Cockneys (Eric Ferguson, Matt Kriger, Brad Zimmerman and David Smith) who serenade Eliza and Doolittle through their spirited numbers.

The choreography by Laura Babbitt and Michelle Macicek is lively and well-paced; the setting by Amanda McBee, especially Higgins's Edwardian linguistic laboratory, is well-stocked with period geegaws; and the aforementioned eye-popping costumes by Libby Evans and those dreadnought hats by Diana Perez are wonders to behold. The production, directed by Phillip Duggins with even more than his customary flair, flows from Cockney square to Walpole Street townhouse and brings life to this show in an abso-blumin'-lutely loverly way.

The verdict: Who better than lyricist Alan Jay Lerner to wrap up Masquerade's production so succinctly: Tonight, old man, you did it!

You did it! You did it! You said that you would do it,

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And indeed you did. I thought that you would rue it;

I doubted you'd do it. But now I must admit it

That succeed you did.

Lerner and Loewe's sublimely realized musical, a true one-of-a-kind, plays through November 27 in Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Buy tickets online at www.masqueradetheatre.com or call 713-868-9696. $31.25-$66.25.

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