By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
“And oh, that towering feeling! ...that overpowering feeling,” sings the character Freddy in My Fair Lady, in one of the greatest songs of the American theater, “On the Street Where You Live.” He’s been hopelessly smitten by the transformed flower girl, Eliza Doolittle.
Oh, that towering feeling -- it’s what’s missing from the Act II Playhouse production of the now-classic musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Overpowering? I’m afraid not.
The theater company has been making much of the fact that it is producing the normally lush and lavish musical on the intimate stage of its 130-seat theater in Ambler. The payoff: An intimate production (read that: downsized) could more intensely focus on the relationship between Henry Higgins, the insufferable snob who defines people’s worth by the way they talk, and his student, Doolittle — a street girl whose English and manners he’ll reshape well enough to pass her off as a duchess.
All of this presumes that the relationship generally appears muddy in more richly defined productions, which is nonsense. The endgame here, though, is not motive -- it’s outcome. Act II’s My Fair Lady is entertaining and I certainly came away admiring its loverly cast, but I couldn’t get past its littleness. If you know the show, the experience is like watching, say, the movie Gandhi on your smartphone screen. The story’s there, the sweep isn’t.
The production is severely held back by its accompaniment -- a lone piano played by Robert Diton. For starters, the piano needs tuning, but worse than that is the context the instrument provides: We feel like we’re seeing a run-through of a great musical to the backing of a rehearsal piano, and the orchestra will be there tomorrow night.
Add to this some high-school theater touches -- the plunked-down wigs, the championship mugging by some of the ensemble, our first impression of Eliza Doolittle when the greasepaint applied to her face to make her look dirty is clearly greasepaint applied to her face to make her look dirty.
But wait — a professional cast of actors gives it their all, and what we get in the end are tuneful ensemble voices and a likable rendition of the show’s many iconic songs. We even get good dancing, staged impressively for a small space by the music director, Sonny Leo.
Act II’s outgoing chief, Bud Martin, who officially takes the helm of Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company today, directs this My Fair Lady, and casts the comic actor Tony Braithwaite in the role of Higgins. Braithwaite will take over Martin’s role at Act II, but before that, he brings off a worthy and nuanced Higgins, and Chris Faith makes a fine sidekick as Col. Pickering. Eileen Cella is charming and full-voiced as Eliza, and her solos win the night, and so does Jonathan Silver as Freddy — with the towering feeling and a heartfelt rendition.
Mary Martello is classy and great fun as Higgin’s mom, Mike Corr cuts a fine figure of Eliza’s drunken dad and Lindsay Mauck overcomes the fact that she looks too young to be Higgins’ austere head of the household staff -- even if she is performing in a sort of dollhouse version.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
My Fair Lady: Through June 3 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler. Tickets: $22-$36. Information: 215-654-0200 or www.act2.org.