Actors Theatre put its best spat forward in its season opener, “My Fair Lady.” This adaptation of the musical about the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from guttersnipe to princess is playful, imaginative and infused with unexpected freshness by director Amanda Dehnert.
Favorite numbers such as “I Could Have Danced All Night” tell you this is “My Fair Lady,” but the production immediately breaks with how you may imagine the musical should look. The stage in the Pamela Brown Auditorium is designed as a rehearsal space with an exposed brick wall, a wood floor and two black pianos. The actors complete the rehearsal feel by milling onto the stage in the musical’s beginning moments to stretch or perform vocal exercises.
Rather quickly, the stage becomes a street corner crowded with well-to-doers hailing taxis. Eliza (Rachael Warren), with coke-smudged cheeks and a flower basket, appears and bit by bit, the Londoners change into her ragtag neighbors. Two of the commuters, Henry Higgins (Timothy Crowe) and Colonel Pickering (George McDaniel) are left. Both are dialect enthusiasts, and they soon notice Eliza’s Cockney accent and poor manners. When Eliza asks Higgins to help her speak like a lady, her makeover begins — as a bet that Higgins can pass her off as royalty.
Warren lets Eliza’s spark and passion fully take over and shows what fun it can be when your job is to lack decorum. Eliza pours herself into chairs instead of sitting like a lady. She digs at her teeth with her fingers and questions why she should use handkerchiefs when sleeves will do.
In short, Warren is a delight to watch as she moves Eliza further from the gutter and closer to London society. However, a vision of Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 Academy Award-wining movie adaptation waltzed into my mind when Eliza prepares for her royal debut. Instead exuding the glamour Hepburn garnered in this moment, this Eliza wears a pink confection better suited for Barbie. (The costume shop does a marvelous job when, during the scene at the Ascot racecourse, ladies’ frothy hats and gentlemen’s top hats are wired from the rafters to sit atop actors’ heads.)
Warren is joined by the equally engaging performances of Timothy Crowe as Higgins and Larry Daggett as Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle. Crowe locks in on Higgins’ acerbic nature and aptly displays the confirmed bachelor’s confusion when, after her debut, Higgins discovers the parameters of his relationship with Eliza suddenly change. As the confirmed tippler Doolittle, Daggett charms the audience during the rousing “Get Me To The Church On Time.” He gets some help from the chorus, who perform an elaborate dance routine during the number. George McDaniel performs well as the stalwart Pickering, and musicians Bill Corcoran and Tim Robertson delight as the production’s two onstage pianists.
My mother remembers seeing the Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews version of “My Fair Lady.” That was close to 50 years ago. Who can know if I will remember this version as long. But I won’t be surprised if I do.
BY DANA NORTON