My Fair Lady

Local Arts Reviews

Exhibitionism

My Fair Lady: All at Once Am I Several Stories High

Paramount Theatre, through October 6

Running Time: 2 hrs, 50 min

This Cockney flower girl has infiltrated the smart set at Ascot, hoping to pass herself off as one of the impeccably well-bred. Sheathed in a dress of snow white, extravagantly trimmed with crimson sashes and bows, set off by a hat the size of a child's wading pool and sporting more feathers than an ostrich, she has the outfit. With features frozen in an expression of light bemusement, she has the look. Holding herself with the poise of an acrobat on a high wire, she has the carriage. Now if she can just seat herself in the manner befitting a lady. She stands before a chair and lowers her posterior ... ever ... so ... slo-o-o-ow-ly. In the time it takes her backside to connect with the cushion, you could run the horses around the track and get them to the stables.

This gloriously comic moment from Austin Musical Theatre's production of My Fair Lady is little more than a throwaway bit, and yet it exemplifies the character of the show: lavish in look, playful in spirit, a delightful dance of elegance and frivolity. Directors Scott Thompson and Richard Byron stage Eliza Doolittle's transformation at the hands of egotistical phonetics professor Henry Higgins with the visual flair we've come to expect from AMT: The ever-ingenious Christopher McCollum delivers a staggering number of elaborate sets -- from clothesline-strewn alley to sumptuously wood-paneled study to plant-plentiful conservatory -- that slyly pirouette into view. The costumes, from a Paper Mill Playhouse revival, evoke the fashions of 19th-century London in high style with splashes of whimsy. But this world of refinement is a playground in the hands of Thompson and Byron. They tease the comedy out of every scene, in even the smallest places, and turn musical numbers into rollicking parades, with Eliza's lower class chums brandishing brooms as batons and dustbin lids as cymbals, and serving up high kicks with high spirits. (The chorus is among AMT's most exuberant.) The actors revel in the humor. LuAnn Aronson renders every fumble of Eliza's disastrous outing at Ascot with expert comedic skill. George McDaniels' Higgins is a vigorous chap, restless of mind and body, whose quick wit amuses no one so much as himself; he's his own best friend and biggest fan. And you can see in his twinkling eye that he sees his bet with Col. Pickering -- Bob Dorian, endearingly befuddled -- that he can make a lady of Eliza as a game. Michael G. Hawkins infuses Eliza's dad Alfred with the charm of a Lost Boy, a rapscallion whose grin can melt any anger.

That's not to say the production plays everything for laughs. The makeover of this "guttersnipe" is given its grueling due (drill after drill to the point of exhaustion) and Aronson's Eliza responds to it with the ferocity of a caged lioness. Then Aronson delivers Eliza's breakthrough moment -- you know, "the rain in Spain ..." -- with such focus and determination, eyes narrowed and jaws set under a blazing white spot -- that her speaking those words is triumphant. When it comes time for Eliza's final exam, the Embassy Ball, she appears at the second-floor entrance to Higgins' study like a fairy-tale vision: soft blue gown with jeweled tiara glittering and skin radiant under Kevin Greene's lights, Cinderella after the wave of her godmother's wand. And when the ball is over and Eliza is ignored by Higgins, Aronson's stunned expression and stillness are heartbreaking. This lady is more than fair; she is exquisite.

We certainly get Lerner and Loewe's incomparable score performed with an ear for its beauty. Whether it's Fred Barton leading the orchestra through the overture, Aronson making "I Could Have Danced All Night" her ode to joy, or Damon Kirsche sending "On the Street Where You Live" into the heavens, the sound is sublime. But it is entwined in the arms of a playfulness, a sense of fun, that is what lifts the show -- and its audiences -- to special heights. Would that I could rush back and see the show again. Still, it's so memorable that all I have to do is think of it and "all at once am I several stories high."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

My Fair Lady, Austin Musical Theatre, Scott Thompson, Richard Byron, Christopher McCollum, LuAnn Aronson, George McDaniels, Bob Dorian, Michael G. Hawkins, Fred Barton, Damon Kirsche, Kevin Greene

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