By George, I think they’ve got it! “My Fair Lady,” the Signature Theatre’s swan song before it dives into its new shiny home, is perfectly enchanting from beginning to end.
The musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is fitting for the stalwart theater, that has staged countless productions over the past 14 years in its converted garage space along Four Mile Run Drive’s car repair/storage haven. Although small in stature, Signature makes up for it with impressive showmanship. Rough on the outside but ravishing on the inside would be an apt description for it as is the play’s main character, Eliza Doolittle.
Directed by Eric Schaeffer, this Pygmalion story brings together two hard-headed individuals from opposite classes: the refined linguistics professor Henry Higgins and the poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle. What first started as a 50 pound wager turns into affection, as is expected, a common plotline that never gets old. Higgins strikes a bet that he can make “a queen out of that barbarous wrench” with his colleague, Col. Hugh Pickering, and pass her off at the Embassy Ball in six months.
Shakespeare Theatre veteran Andrew Long takes a surprising turn as the demanding Professor Higgins and delivers an absolutely sublime performance.
Higgins is a tough teacher as he drills Eliza on her vowels and “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain” well into the morning. Long offers the just the right amount uppityness, but manages to show his character’s gentler side. After all, he has to get the girl.
As his fair lady, Broadway actress Sally Murphy turns in a wonderful performance in her Signature debut. Her transformation from a scrappy “boo-hooing” flower girl into a high society lady is remarkable. When she enters the room in her show-stopping white ball gown (worthy of Vera Wang), the impact is deafening.
Harry A. Winter as Col. Pickering and Will Gartshore as Freddy Eynsford-Hill stand out among the supporting cast. As Pickering, Winter offers a fatherly figure to Eliza and treats her as a human being – a welcome respite from Professor Higgins who looks at her as dirt and something to be molded. In his limited scenes, Gartshore brings his standard boyish charm as the infatuated society man who hangs out “On the Street Where You (Eliza) Live.”
The songs in “My Fair Lady” are beautifully, or “loverly,” written and are performed by a very capable cast using Karma Camp’s exuberant choreography.
From the first number, comical fast-paced “Why Can’t the English?” to the lovely ballad “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” the musical will have viewers humming out the doors.
Stripping the production down, Signature reinvents the beloved classic without taking away its emotional core. The cast has been reduced from 44 to 19 players with two pianists (Jenny Cartney and Alfredo Pulupa) at the helm of some of the greatest musical pieces. And the expected lavish set is done away with; it its place is James Kronzer’s industrial-looking set with a pair of stacked chairs lying sideways center stage. The only other set change would be Professor Higgins’ study where steel columns revolve into bookcases (revealing a couple of golden phonographs), a ladder drops from the ceiling, and desk and chairs are brought in.
These big alterations heighten the impact of the relationships and its dialogue. The supporting cast is often dressed similarly in mute colors or build. Designer Jenn Miller’s costumes help distinguish the classes. The upperclass society is pictured wearing big hats, bows and jewels or coats and tails while the help appear in aprons or for the men, sleeveless jackets and gloves, (a nice modern touch).
“My Fair Lady” is a crowd-pleasing delight and Schaeffer and Co. have really made a production that keeps the treasured classic fresh.
WHEN YOU GO
* “My Fair Lady”
* Through Nov. 19
* Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington
* Tickets: $37 to $63
* (800) 955-5566 or signature-theatre.org