MY FAIR LADY at SF Playhouse must be seen to be believed.

(Upper)Pickering, Higgins and Eliza celebrate “The Rain in Spain” (Richard Frederick*, Johnny Moreno* and Monique Hafen*). (lower) Doolittle (Charles Dean*) and Ensemble getting to the church on time.

MY FAIR LADY: Adapted from George Bernard Shaw's Play and Gabriel Pascal's motion picture “Pygmalion”. Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. Directed by Bill English. SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. 415-677-9596 or July 10th to September 29th, 2012.

MY FAIR LADY at SF Playhouse must be seen to be believed.

It seemed incredulous when the word came out that SF Playhouse had scheduled My Fair Lady the musical to be performed with only nine characters even though local icon and superb actor Charles Dean was to play Alfred P. Doolittle. How could they mount a splashy musical on their miniscule stage in a theater holding 99 seats? They have done it, increasing the cast size to 11 with the help of twin pianos (Greg Mason and Dave Dobrosky), a fantastic set and a spirited cast earning the honor of being a must see play.

After George B. Shaw’s play Arms and the Man was converted into the mediocre The Chocolate Soldier he would not allow his marvelous play Pygmalion to suffer the same fate. Permission was granted only after his death and the rest of the story is history. Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Lowe teamed up in 1956 for the Broadway production that was a runaway hit and in the intervening years played throughout the world.

What you will see at SF Playhouse is best described as Pygmalion with Music. All the lovely music is still there: “Wouldn't It Be Loverly?,” “Little Bit of Luck,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” and the major characters are in good voice. In the pivotal role of Professor Higgins Johnny Moreno gives a powerful strutting performance with his musical patter and an occasional turn at song.

Director Bill English makes the story-line the centerpiece of his interpretation eschewing saccharine sentimentality and opting for a more rugged concept of Higgins. Moreno has the personality to pull it off. He makes the role his own and is a marvel to watch and a joy to hear with a crisp voice with perfect enunciation, as one would expect from a Professor of Linguistics. His bravado is balanced by Richard Frederick as the stolid Colonel Pickering.

Monique Hafen adroitly makes the difficult transition from a rough voiced Cockney speaking flower girl to a sophisticated Lady with hi-brow speech fit to be a “salesperson in a flower shoppe” or the consort to a king. Her petite frame stands tall when she responds to Higgins’ indifference in the infamous slipper throwing scene.

Karen Hirst doubles as Mrs. Pearce the housekeeper and Mrs. Higgins giving each the stature they deserve and slipping unobtrusively in out of the ensemble. Also slipping out of the ensemble to play a major part is handsome willowy Justin Gilmore as the love smitten Freddy Eynsford-Hill garnering audience approval with the signature song “On the Street Where you Live.”

And then there is Charles Dean as a memorable dustman Alfred P. Doolittle beginning with his first appearance to put the touch on Eliza for half a Crown, later in an encounter with Higgins requesting only a ‘fiver’ for his daughter and lastly his rousing request with the ensemble to “get me to the church on time.”

What is absolutely amazing is Nina Balls intricate set design that appears solid enough to withstand a San Francisco earthquake yet fluidly changes with sliding panels without missing a beat. It alone is worth the price of admission to the “Ascot Gavotte” that is cleverly staged with the audience waiting with bated breath for Eliza to exhort her mount to “move your bloody arse!”

All is not praiseworthy since the dancing is best described as clunky and Randy Nazarian unbalances the ensemble with his mugging playing his part as a combination of Marcellus Washburn from The Music Man and Nicely Nicely from Guys and Dolls (both parts he has frequently played) that rocks the boat.

G. B. S. viewing the show from his place in the Theatrical Heaven might not approve of Bill English allowing Higgins and Eliza to share a kiss but it is certain the opening night audience did. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes including the intermission.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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