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My Fair Lady -07/24/1998

Adapted from the play “Pygmalion,” by George Bernard Shaw.  Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner.  Music by Frederick Loewe.  Cast: Stephanie
Crist, Mary Eisenhardt, Bruce Heck, Anthony LaPalio, Kelly McMorris, Ray North, Tom Reed, Eleanore Stasheff, Gemma Wall, Rodney Woodworth. Director: Debbie Alley.  Musical Director: Shirley Blankenship.  Scenic Designer: Bradley T. Hellwig.  Costume Designer: Jeri Corso.  Lighting Designer: Ford Anton.

Sunshine Dinner Playhouse through September 6, 1998.  Sunshine Dinner Playhouse in the Chancellor Hotel and Convention Center, 1501 S. Neil, Champaign.  Box office: 359-4503.


Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” is a perfect example of the “golden era” musical -- fans have fond memories of indelible star turns from the movie and productions they saw when they were young, the songs are lovely and memorable, and yet there are definite problems with the book when looked at now.

Directors use various techniques to get around the show’s big problem -- the fact that Professor Henry Higgins acts like a jerk a lot of the time.  As he tries to turn Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady, Higgins insults, berates and abuses the poor thing, and then he pitches a fit when she turns on her heel and dumps him.

That played just fine in the early 60’s, when “My Fair Lady” hit Broadway, but it certainly should give 90’s audiences pause. Debbie Alley, directing “My Fair Lady” for the Sunshine Dinner Playhouse, finds a way to minimize the unpleasantness with two deft strategies.

First, she’s made Eliza into a real spitfire who gives almost as good as she gets.

And she’s countered with a Professor Higgins who’s more of a spoiled brat than a monster.

Add excellent voices to carry the sprightly Frederick Loewe tunes and strong production values, and the result is a likeable, energetic “My Fair Lady” that’s well worth seeing.

I chose to do the total dinner theater experience for this performance -- I sidled up to the buffet, drank a rootbeer float in a souvenir glass, and brought along friends to chat with at my table.  Getting into the spirit of things that way, I enjoyed a congenial evening all around.  No, dinner theater is not like other theater.  But, yes, it has its charms.

Director Alley has fashioned a tight, skillful production, with good support from Bradley T. Hellwig’s scenic design and Jeri Corso’s costumes.

Hellwig’s turntable set looks especially good when it’s spun to the cozy Higgins’ study side, and Corso’s costumes are impressive throughout, from the layered Cockney girl look to the spiffy Ascot parade.  The hats alone are to die for.

As Eliza Doolittle, Mary Eisenhardt projects energy and spirit.  She has a bright voice, making “I Could’ve Danced All Night” delightful, and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” very pretty.

Tom Reed has lots of personality as Henry Higgins, although at times he seems to be doing a Rex Harrison imitation vocally.  When he audibly breathes in and out as the lyrics refer to it in “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” you know he’s taking things too far.  Still, he and Eisenhardt combine for an excellent take on “Without You.”

I also enjoyed the performances of Rodney Woodworth, amiable and cuddly as scruffy Alfred P. Doolittle; Bruce Heck as a classy Colonel Pickering; Gemma Wall mining warmth and humor from the small role of housekeeper Mrs. Pearce; and Stephanie Crist as a tart Mrs. Higgins. Ray North acted and sang well as Freddie, Eliza’s aristocratic suitor, helping “Show Me” stay lively and “On the Street Where You Live” sound romantic, but he would have benefitted from better blocking on that last number and its reprise.

Still, all considered, this “My Fair Lady” is a strong showing and a fun dinner theater experience for the Sunshine.

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