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Guthrie’s ‘My Fair Lady’ is lavish and ‘loverly’

Joel Liestman (from left), Helen Anker as Eliza Doolittle, Alex Gibson, Jared Oxborough and Joe Bigelow are shown in a scene from the Guthrie Theater’s production of “My Fair Lady,” directed by Joe Dowling. The musical continues through Aug. 31. (JOAN MARCUS/GUTHRIE THEATER)

MINNEAPOLIS — Seeing my all-time favorite musical “My Fair Lady,” on stage again is a true celebration, just like a joyful reunion with friends after an interlude of many years. The current production at the Twin Cities Guthrie Theater dazzles with a splendid cast reviving the play's traditional British setting of 1912 London.

“My Fair Lady” was a huge hit in the mid-1950s both on Broadway and in London with the original cast of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. Inspired by George Bernard Shaw's “Pygmalion,” Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Frederick Loewe, the composer, created one of the best musicals ever written.

“Fair Lady” tells a familiar story of the confident, self-satisfied Professor Henry Higgins, a linguist who meets Eliza Doolittle, a poor Cockney girl, while she's selling flowers at Covent Garden. He makes a wager with a friend that within a few months, under his rigorous tutelage, he can turn Eliza into a duchess by teaching her to speak like a lady.

She'll move into Higgins' household and be looked after by his housekeeper for as long as it takes to teach her proper English and gracious manners.

The Professor, who is accustomed to having everything done his way, is confounded by Eliza's assertiveness. Because he shows her no mercy during their tiresome routine, she rebels against his repetitive vocal exercises such as: “In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen” and “The Rain In Spain Stays Mainly On The Plain.”

Jeff McCarthy, particularly well cast as Higgins, follows Rex Harrison's pattern of singing so that his songs are spoken more than they're sung. McCarthy has an advantage over Harrison in that regard due to his excellent singing voice.

The charismatic Helen Anker makes a fine Eliza. She may not be the singer that Julie Andrews was, but Anker's sparkling personality shines in this role. At the Embassy Ball, which introduces Eliza to elegant society, she charms the guests, even the royalty, and her costumes from rags to riches are exactly right for all occasions.

Every time he's on stage, Donald Corren as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father, a conniving, yet lovable rascal, steals the show with his clever songs, witty, street-philospher lines and his amazing vitality in dancing. Corren and the chorus perform some of the most engaging routines we've seen anywhere.

Tyler Michaels turns the bland role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill into a major character. Smitten with Eliza, he follows her like a lost puppy and croons the lovely ballad, “On The Street Where You Live” while waiting for her daily in front of the Higgins’ home.

The other supporting characters are each worthy of the high standards expected from Guthrie. The live orchestra, though hidden from view, gives vibrant accompaniment for those beloved songs.

Eliza shows that she is beginning to understand her own power by rejecting the safe, boring Freddy. The subtleties of the British class system are skewered repeatedly in “My Fair Lady,” not only when Eliza spurns Freddy, but when she leaves Professor Higgins. She expects him to treat her like a lady, not just to teach her to talk like one, and the astonished Higgins eventually bends to her will. The ambiguity of the final scene when Eliza returns to Higgins, although the audience doesn't know if she will stay, maintains the delicious uncertainy of G. B. Shaw's original work, “Pygmalion."

Other features we like particularly in this production are the unique settings, which switch in split-second timing from Covent Garden to Professor Higgins' home to the grand ballroom where Eliza wins the Professor’s wager, returning now and then for another scene at each place. Higgins’ study is a sight to see with a wonderful curved stairway leading up to his impressive paneled library shelved with books. Each side of the stage is anchored by giant pillars next to tall Victorian street lamps.

Directed by the famous Joe Dowling,”My Fair Lady” is Guthrie Theater at its lavish best. The show continues through Aug. 31st.