The beloved “My Fair Lady” might have some blemishes.
But they’re hard to find.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, the show has been charming audiences since its record-setting Broadway run began in 1956.
The wonderfully melodic songs, which range from the comedic “The Rain in Spain” to the heartbreaking “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” propel a show that works extraordinarily well on multiple levels.
On the surface, we’re presented with an opposites attract, romantic comedy revolving around Cockney-accented flower girl Eliza Doolittle and elitist voice coach Henry Higgins.
But for all the musical’s great entertainment value, “My Fair Lady” also smartly addresses the timeless theme of class consciousness and takes a fierce swipe at society’s prejudices.
Michael Edwards, who had never seen a staged version of the musical, only the popular movie of the same name, chose to open the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s 53rd season with the classic because he considers it the “very best musical ever written.”
But the producing artistic director of the venerable Sarasota theater company also connects with the show, opening this week, on a personal level.
“I’m an Australian, I’m from the bush, the English are very mean to Australians,” Edwards said. “Verbal class distinction, by now, it should be extinct, but it’s not.”
“My Fair Lady” director Tony Galati also has a special relationship with the musical.
The Tony Award-winning Sarasota resident recalled that in 1957 the touring production of the Broadway smash came to the Shubert Theatre in Chicago when he was a sophomore in high school. It was the first professional show Galati saw.
“Ever since that day I have been mesmerized by theater,” he said. “ ‘My Fair Lady’ opened the door that led me down this path.”
Galati agreed to direct the musical when Edwards informed him it would be the revival-version of the show featuring accompaniment by just two pianos.
“The appeal was that Michael had chosen to do a chamber version that’s more intimate,” Galati said. “And between South Florida and Chicago and New York we really assembled a first-rate cast that can portray the characters as naturally as Shaw wrote them, with a romance between Eliza and Higgins that is more palpable than the one shown in ’56.”
Leading lady Andrea Prestinario recently played Eliza at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, Ill.
The Chicago Tribune reviewed the production.
“But aside from a big set of pipes (which Prestinario surely has), the one thing that Eliza needs above all else is passion,” wrote theater critic Chris Jones. “And that, frankly, is what lifts this performance and, by extension, the entire show.”
Prestinario showed off her immense singing chops, and her ability to inhabit the character, at a recent media luncheon when she sang “I Could’ve Danced All Night.”
“I think Eliza has lot of fire and passion and that’s something I connect with,” she said. “I can empathize with her transformation. That’s part of the story I can connect with personally. Somebody from poverty, once given education, they can succeed. It’s so relevant and timeless.”
Joining her as Professor Higgins is Jeff Parker, whose credits include Goodman Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company and Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Even though Prestinario and Parker both work and live in the Chicago area, they had never met before. To help build chemistry between the two leads, they have been given a single car to share during the duration of rehearsals and the run that concludes Dec. 23.
Talking to each separately it sounded like it won’t be difficult for them to make romantic sparks fly when the show begins preview performances Tuesday.
“She’s stunningly beautiful and that certainly doesn’t hurt,” Parker said. “Beyond that, Andrea has an incredible stage presence and charm and energy. When she performs Eliza she’s riveting.”
The 19-person cast comes from across the country. But it also includes local favorites such as Robert May, who made his directorial debut in September with the Manatee Players’ production of “The Sound of Music.” As a member of the “My Fair Lady” ensemble he’s thrilled to watch a master such as Galati in action.
“I love it,” Edwards said. “That’s one of the brilliant things of being here is nurturing local talent and bringing in that kind of support. We couldn’t do big shows like this without the community support and they’re loving working with this exceptional cast.”
Wade Tatangelo, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Visit heraldbuzzworthy.blogspot.com.