‘My Fair Lady’ is as charming as can be at SF Playhouse

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 4/5 Stars » Highly Recommended)

What can you say that’s new about My Fair Lady, the grand old dame of American musicals? Based on a masterpiece (Pygmallion) by George Bernard Shaw and blessed with an unforgettably melodic score, this chestnut is as perfect a recipe for delight as has ever been penned.

The danger in every production of such a famous, well-known and well-loved piece is over familiarity. In too many productions, performers, directors and musicians are willing to go through the motions, relying on the audience’s pleasure in the familiar and not approaching the material as if seeing it for the first time.

Director Bill English and his marvelous troupe bring the story to fresh life as if they had never encountered it before.

First: let me assure you this is not a “revisionist” version of My Fair Lady. Don’t worry. Higgins, Eliza, Pickering, Freddy, Alfie, Mrs. Higgins and the ever kind and reliable Mrs. Pearce are all here, all familiar, all delightful. But in each case, with a bit of something more.

The something more is immediately apparent in the opening scene outside Covent Garden, where we meet the ensemble of cockney roughs with whom flower girl Eliza (a marvelous Monique Hafen)  must contend. They are fully realized characters, each of them, and carefully developed well beyond the usual musical comedy fare. They are rough, crude and trashy, and watching their behavior brings the horror of Eliza’s poverty to the forefront. Also developed with great clarity are the political implications of Higgins philosophy: that class distinction is artificial, biased, and can and should be overcome. And, moreover, that he has the means to do it. The awakening of hope in Eliza is a wonder to behold.

I could go on. Each of the musical numbers is freshly conceived, interestingly choreographed and intelligently interpreted with careful attention paid to Shaw’s carefully argued social criticism.

All the performances are excellent, but Charles Dean is a special treat as Alfred P. Doolittle. If any Bay Area actor deserves wide recognition it is Mr. Dean, many of whose polished performances would certainly be Tony nominated in New York. His Doolittle is nothing short of a wonder, in every detail of characterization. His singing and dancing are as good as it gets. He gives us Shaw’s genius of a dustman in all his drunken sooty glory, as I have always wanted to find him, but never have before.

Go. Enjoy. You’ll want to dance all night.

My Fair Lady continues at SF Playhouse through September 29, 2012. For further information, click here.

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“My Fair Lady” adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture “Pygmallion”. Book & lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Music by Frederick Loewe. Directed by Bill English. Musical Direction: Greg Mason. Choreography: Kimberly Richards. Set Design: Nina Ball. Lighting Design: Michael Oesch. Costume Design: Abra Berman.

Ensemble/Freddy Understudy: Luke Chapman. Alfred P. Doolittle: Charles Dean. Colonel Pickering: Richard Frederick. Freddy Eyensford-Hill: Justin Gillman. Eliza Doolittle: Monique Hafen. Mrs. Higgins/Mrs. Pearce: Karen Hirst. Georgia/Ensemble: Mandy Khoshnevisan. Henry Higgins: Johnny Moreno. Jamie/Ensemble: Kenneth McPherson. Harry/Ensemble: Randy Nazarian. Ensemble/Eliza Understudy: Corinne Proctor.

Pianists: Greg Mason and David Dobrusky.

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