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THEATER REVIEW: “My Fair Lady” at Cygnet

It’s one thing to wear a mask and pretend to be someone else. It’s quite another to convincingly pass yourself off as someone you’re not.

In George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” a sculptor falls in love with his creation, which then comes to life.

Forty-some years later, thanks to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, phonetics professor Henry Higgins bets fellow linguist Colonel Pickering that he can take a “deliciously low” Cockney flower girl, “dropping aitches everywhere,” and pass her off as royalty.

What a challenge. What an opportunity for social commentary. And what a musical! Though Shaw wouldn’t have approved (he was adamant that it *not* be a musical), Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” is one of the greatest American musicals ever written, jammed with supremely singable tunes such as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “The Rain In Spain.” The musical won six Tonys on Broadway; the 1964 film version took eight Oscars, and both versions have been delighting audiences ever since.

Cygnet Theatre mounts the show for the second time in a scaled-down chamber version through April 26 in its Old Town digs.

Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray directs and stars as Higgins, the brilliant academic with execrable manners, who takes both Eliza (Allison Spratt Pearce) and Col. Pickering (Tom Stephenson) in for the duration of the bet. He says the project will take six months.

Eliza, who aspires to a post in a “proper flower shop,” actually volunteers for the grueling lessons (and insists on paying for them), but she knows neither how unpleasant they will be, nor that Higgins will treat her like a lab rat. She strenuously objects to the latter, and only Pickering’s kindness keeps her at the task.

One of Eliza’s trials – and one of the show’s best scenes – takes her to opening day at the Ascot races, where she tries out the newly learned phrase “How kind of you to let me come” and later amusingly loses herself in the excitement with an expletive not commonly used in polite company.

Along the way, Eliza gains the support of Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Debra Wanger), charms Higgins’ mother (Linda Libby, in a terrific performance) and turns the head of upper-crust weakling Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Charles Evans, Jr).

Also along for the ride – and for our great amusement – is Eliza’s dustman father Alfred P. Doolittle, opportunist extraordinaire, who figures he can make a few pounds off his daughter’s association with the “swell” Higgins. Ron Choularton, the only bona fide Brit in the cast, makes the most of this wonderful role, especially in the rollicking songs “With A Little Bit O’ Luck” and “Get Me To The Church On Time.”

The time has been moved forward to the ’30s, allowing Jeanne Reith to go to town with costumes and hats and Peter Herman to have a good time with wigs and makeup.

Chris Rynne’s lighting design and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design are top-notch as well.

David Brannen contributes fine choreography – in which Katie Whalley Banville (as Lady Boxington and ensemble member) particularly sparkles. Andrew Hull’s versatile set design works well except for the puzzling hunks of something that looks like tissue paper on the rear wall, presumably to hide music director Patrick Marion and his five fine musicians.

Murray knows his way around the Higgins role, having played it before, and does not disappoint. Pearce had some trouble making Eliza’s ugly Cockney sounds the night I saw her, but she certainly makes some beautiful ones on the songs, particularly the soaring “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

I’m an old dog to whom teaching new tricks is iffy, and I confess that I was looking for Julie Andrews and a big orchestra, but don’t miss this show on those counts. Cygnet has a fine “My Fair Lady” here.

The details

“My Fair Lady” plays through April 26 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town, San Diego, California.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.