|ANNAMAE BAFIA/PUBLICITY PHOTO of Andrea Prestinario|
Leads Andrea Prestinario (Eliza Doolitte) and Jeff Parker (Henry Higgins) joust with just the right bit of bite and make you believe they’re falling in love without so much as even sharing a kiss.
It’s the 1956 Broadway smash (turned classic 1964 film) brought into the beautiful Mertz Theatre and given a most wonderful intimacy courtesy of music director Doug Peck and assistant music director Ian Weinberger playing all of Frederick Loewe’s glorious melodies on a mere pair of facing pianos.
Sans the orchestra, the characters are free to deliver those loverly lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner with gripping nuance and grace.
Lerner’s dialogue, largely derived from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” teems with welcoming believability. Whether witty, comic, morose or whimsical it works extremely well when delivered by Prestinario, Parker and the rest of the superb, 19-person cast working under the masterful direction of Frank Galati.
The director allows Prestinario to play Eliza as the proto-feminist I believe Shaw and Lerner intended all along. Remember, she’s the lowly flower girl who goes to the misogynistic and elitist phonetics professor demanding he allow her to pay for speech lessons. By show’s end, Eliza has made a lady of herself and turned bachelor Higgins “accustomed to her face.”
Maybe she won’t even get him those slippers after the final curtain and continue teaching him how women should be treated.
Regardless, Eliza’s character arc has always been the most fascinating aspect of this practically perfect musical and Prestinario shines with ample help from Parker, whose Higgins also goes through a satisfying transformation.
In addition, what has always made “My Fair Lady” such a terrific show is that the scenes and musical numbers are equally strong. Galati and cast maintain the extraordinary level of sustained greatness throughout. It's what makes the nearly 2 1/2 hour performance (not including intermission) zip by.
Prestinario has a big, beautiful voice but also understands the subtly required to sell a bittersweet kiss off such as “Without You.” Parker smartly nods to Higgins originator Rex Harrison's speak-sing approach while allowing his sonorous pipes to take over when appropriate. (Yes, Parker is a better vocalist than Harrison was.)
As for the rest of the cast, each person contributes strongly. Joel Hatch plays Colonel Pickering — the one who makes the wager about Eliza becoming a lady — with a winning amount of snobbery and empathy. Sean Effinger-Dean makes Freddy Eynsford-Hill a most believable boy in love, especially when he sings “On the Street Where You Live.” And that scene-stealing Bryan Torfeh is outright hilarious as the villain Zolton Karpathy.
For all the charm of the cast, I would be remiss without mentioning the look of the show. Set designer Russell Metheny, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, lighting designer James D. Sale, sound designer Kevin Kennedy as well as resident hair/wig and makeup designer Michelle Hart do a tremendous job of transporting the audience to the London of 1912.
Voice and dialect coach Patricia Delorey, with help from English-schooled cast member Cliff Roles, also deserve applause for making sure no one sounded silly with the Cockney or upper-class British accents.
Sure, you can sit at home and watch the excellent film version of “My Fair Lady.” But what the Asolo Rep has done with this spectacular musical shouldn’t be missed. It will make you fall in love again even with the most familiar scenes and songs all over again.
If you go
What: “My Fair Lady”
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: Asolo Repertory’s Mertz Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Information: 941-351-8000 or www.asolorep.org