by Hugh Hunter
Holiday cheer arrives early with “My Fair Lady” by Lerner and Loewe, now in extended run at Quintessence Theatre in Mt. Airy. Based on “Pygmalion,” by George Bernard Shaw, street waif Eliza Doolittle and phonetics professor Henry Higgins carry on with their odd coupling.
Under Director Alexander Burns, the show sparkles and flows. But it would not have charmed Shaw. He seized on Ovid’s Greek myth as a platform to explore the downside of class structure and male dominance. A professed anti-romantic, he opposed turning his play into a musical.
For sure, “My Fair Lady” is not as dark as “Pygmalion.” The musical genre all but demands happy endings (“Cabaret” notwithstanding). And while it is a struggle to suggest character change in a play, a strong song can simply posit change because of music’s power to move you.
You feel that with both Eliza and Higgins. Leigha Kato shines as the cockney flower girl. A song like “Just You Wait” deepens the pride and anger we already see in her Eliza. But Kato is strong enough to sing “I Could Have Danced All Night” with passion, revealing Eliza’s hidden romantic side.
Likewise with Higgins. Gregory Isaac is wonderfully supercilious as the curmudgeonly language master. In his urbane vocal approach, a song like “Why Can’t The English?” is an amusing grace note. But in “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” Higgins surprises you with his sudden neediness.
Other characters showcase what is at stake. Unlike Higgins, absurdly romantic Freddy (Lee Cortopassi) turns in a full-throated version of “On The Street Where You Live.” Colonel Pickering (Doug Hara) gleefully wagers that Higgins cannot turn Eliza into a lady. But he is genteel towards her, unlike Eliza’s comically coarse father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Bradley Mott), and she is able to find self-respect. While Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins (both played by People’s Light veteran, Marcia Saunders) point out that the metamorphosis exercise is cruel and thoughtless.
Two pianists, Christopher Ertelt and Amanda Morton, perform at opposite ends of a stage that is bare much of the time. But costume design (Christina Ballard) and choreography (Kaki Burns) give ensemble actors means to enliven the show with a mix of street scenes, from the stirring overture sequence to numbers like “Get Me To The Church On Time.”
In “Pygmalion,” Eliza walks out on Higgins, much like Ibsen’s Nora in “A Doll’s House” a generation earlier. But in “My Fair Lady,” just as Shaw feared, these two come together. Though class conflict is still vibrantly present, it now feels more like a necessary energy that feeds into an offbeat romance.
But you go to a musical with different expectations, and “My Fair Lady” delights on its own terms. The wit of its lyrics matches Shaw’s own, and with its wealth of classic songs and dance routines, the Quintessence show is rapturous from beginning to end.
Quintessence is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “My Fair Lady” will run through Dec 23. Reservations at 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.