Forget Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” the musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1956, features witty words by lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and memorable music by composer Frederick Loewe.
In 1912 London, flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Karin Hendricks) is peddling her wares in a busy city square when a passer-by bumps into her, knocking her basket to the ground.
Polite Colonel Pickering (Peter S. Hadres) comes to Eliza’s aid. But she’s distracted by another man standing in the shadows, scribbling in a notebook.
This is Henry Higgins (Andrew Philpot), a linguist who specializes in phonetics and the science of speech.
Eliza, he tells Pickering, is a prime example of the English people’s inability to speak proper English.
Identified as working class as soon as she opens her mouth, she’s “a prisoner of the gutters/ Condemned by every syllable she utters,” he sings in “Why Can’t the English?” “It’s (language) that keeps her in her place/ Not her wretched clothes and dirty face.”
To prove it, Higgins makes Pickering a wager: “In six months, I can pass her off as a duchess at an embassy ball.”
Eliza moves into Higgins’ home — much to the surprise of his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (Elizabeth Stuart) — and begins her studies, with Pickering, himself a linguist, on hand to observe. The exercises are no picnic. Higgins stuffs marbles in Eliza’s mouth and torments her with tongue twisters such as “The Rain in Spain.”
Eliza debuts her new skills at the tony Ascot races, where she meets Higgins’ mother, Mrs. Higgins (Kitty Balay), as well as upper-crust cutie Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Matt Koenig) and his mom (Ambre Shoneff). Freddy, charmed by her command of “the new small talk,” is immediately smitten.
Eliza finds herself torn between two worlds – the grubby one inhabited by her lazy, drunken dad, Alfred Doolittle (Erik Stein), and his lay-about pals, Harry (Chad Patterson) and Jamie (George Walker), and the glamorous one of the upper classes.
As this plucky Cockney perfects the art of speaking like a well-bred lady, she wonders what will happen when Higgins’ experiment ends.
Hendricks is perfectly cast as Eliza. Whether she’s musing about a better life (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”), dreaming of zesty revenge against Higgins (“Just You Wait”) or marveling at her own success (“I Could Have Danced All Night”), her acting abilities and vocal power are palpable.
Philpot is equally believable, meanwhile, as a misogynistic misanthrope seemingly more enamored of his professorial prowess than his pupil. Hadres, as dithering Colonel Pickering, provides a nice counterpoint.
Koenig, last seen as Black Stache in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” brings an innocence to his role as romantic Freddy. His sweet tenor is well suited to the ballad “On the Street Where You Live.”
Erik Stein, PCPA’s resident scene stealer, brings a bawdy, boisterous energy to his role as Eliza’s father. Although he twinkles in “With a Little Bit of Luck” in the first act, he truly shines in the second with “Get Me To the Church on Time,” joined by an exuberant ensemble whose dazzling dancing and clear vocals make that familiar tune a true romp.
Ably directed and choreographed by Michael Jenkinson, with the aid of musical director Callum Morris, “My Fair Lady” makes the most of Jason Bolen’s versatile, art nouveau-style set, which recalls the Belle Epoque with its elaborate filigree. Eddy L. Barrows’ turn-of-the-century costumes also help set the scene —especially Eliza’s wardrobe, which maintains a subtle floral motif.
The production features lighting design by Michael P. Frohling and sound design by Elisabeth Rebel. Jeff Parker is the dialect coach.
Although “My Fair Lady” is definitely family-friendly —the subject matter and language are mild at most — the play is not ideally suited for small fry. It’s unlikely that most young children care about class politics or the battle of the sexes, let alone turn-of-the-century phonetics.
That said, “My Fair Lady” teaches audience members a lesson about manners that is appropriate for all ages.
As Eliza tells us, “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”
“My Fair Lady”
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through May 10
Marian Theatre, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria;
$29.50 to $39.50, discounts for seniors, students and children
8 p.m. June 11 through July 12
Solvang Festival Theater, 420 2nd St., Solvang
$38.50 to $49.50, discounts for seniors, students and children
922-8313 or www.pcpa.org