When My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called it “one of the best musicals of the century,” quite a proclamation for a century that still had 44 years left to go. Still, looking back these 53 years later, it’s clear as crystal that even if My Fair Lady had opened in 1999, Atkinson’s rather bold statement would have been as spot-on as it was mid-century. In fact, as Downey Civic Light Opera 2009-2010 season-opening revival of the musical theater classic proves, there may indeed be no better 20th Century musical than My Fair Lady.

Does any musical of the past hundred years have a more perfect book? My Fair Lady’s, by Alan Jay Lerner, takes as its source George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and much if not most of the dialog is Shaw’s.  Does it get any better than that? Then, there are the songs by Lerner and Frederick Loewe. “Why Can’t The English,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “With A Little Bit of Luck,” “I’m An Ordinary Man,” “Just You Wait,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On The Street Where You Live,” “You Did It,” “Show Me,” “Get Me To The Church On Time,” “Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man,” “Without You,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Just try to make a list of the “greatest,” or even of the best known songs from My Fair Lady, and you basically need to list every single one of them. Though Lerner and Lowe also created Brigadoon, Camelot, Gigi, and Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady is by far their crowning achievement, and not an iota dated since its Broadway debut 53 years ago.

2009 audiences can see what all the hoopla has been about in Downey Civic Light Opera’s splendid new production, the CLO’s best since 2007’s Oklahoma!.  With director Marsha Moode at the helm, and Joseph Culliton and Charlotte Carpenter doing smashing work as its Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, this My Fair Lady hits the mark in scene after scene, song after song, and dance after dance.


Broadway vet Culliton gives a performance that easily rivals (yet never apes) that of the definitive ‘enry ‘iggins, a fellow by the name of Harrison, and fine vocalist that he is, Culliton doesn’t need to “talk-sing” Loewe’s melodic tunes.  Opposite him, the ever youthful Carpenter brings an Audrey Hepburn elegance to the role of Eliza, along with her own brand of cuteness and spunk, and a glorious voice to boot.  One of the things I liked best about this production is the way the two actors, under Moode’s standout direction, make it clear as a bell that opposites do indeed attract. More than any other My Fair Lady I’ve seen, it’s obvious by evening’s end that try as he might to hide it, Culliton’s Professor Higgins is head-over-heels about his blue-ribbon pupil. When he utters the immortal curtain line, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers,” for once it’s not Henry Higgins reverting to his old ways, but simply part of a mating dance, and from the look on Carpenter’s face, you can bet your bottom dollar that Eliza knows darn well she’s got him wrapped around her now ladylike finger.  Again and again, Moode and her leads create delicious moments, including a couple (involving a sleeve, a handkerchief, and some dried nasal mucus) that are to be particularly savored.

Supporting performances are all-around top-notch.  Richard Gould’s Colonel Pickering has just the right blend of sophistication and warmth to make him both Higgins’ loyal friend and Eliza’s staunch supporter. Katherine Henryk’s star billing in the cameo role of Mrs. Higgins is amply justified by her sparklingly dry performance, the kind that gets audience applause at scene’s end. As Eliza’s ne’er-do-well father, George Champion proves that versatility is his middle name, earning every possible Doolittle laugh and scoring extra points for his skills as a song-and-dance man. DCLO treasure Ann Peck McBride makes for a wonderful Mrs. Pearce, and as Freddy Eynsford Hill, Jason Marquez displays the strongest and most gorgeous tenor I’ve heard in the Downey Civic Theater in quite some time.

Eliza’s “Cockney Quartet,” who join her in glorious four-part harmony in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” are the multitalented William Crisp (Alfie), Glenn Edward (George), Michael McGreal (Sean), and Kit Wilson (Michael).  Providing delightful dance backup to Champion in “With A Little Bit Of Luck” and “Get Me To The Church On Time” are Karl Schott as Jamie and Stephen Reifenstein as Harry.


Gitana Van Buskirk has been choreographing the last several Downey CLO productions, and with My Fair Lady she and her dancers have truly hit their stride.  In fact, this may well be the best danced DCLO production in recent years. Van Buskirk has her talented chimney sweeps (Tyler Girdner, Brandon Heitkamp, George Hernandez, Michael Marchak, and Branden Lee Roth) executing spectacular leaps and tour jetes, her buskers (Hernandez, dance captain Heather Biede, and Laurie Fedor) earning cheers for their Covent Garden footwork, and other ensemble members (Adia Joelle, Rachel King, and Julia Springer in particular) kicking up their heels to deserved applause. 

(Note: The “Embassy Waltz” scene, which normally ends the first act, has been cut, along with the character of Zoltan Karpathy, perhaps for budgetary reasons.  Though the music and elegance of the scene are missed, the show works quite well even without the ball, as Higgins describes it in detail in the Act 2 opener “You Did It,” and the production runs three fast-moving hours even without the scene excised.)

My Fair Lady’s cast of 39 is completed in fine fashion by John F. Briganti, Jeffrey D. Collier (George), Devin Cornair, Shannon Cudd, Courtney King (Margaret), Randy Long, Lisa Valerie Morgan, Marilyn Morgan, Rachel O’Connell, Fiona Okida, Sarah Osborn, Joan Perkins, Terra Shelman (Mrs. Eynsford Hill), Carl Smith, Beda Spindola, and Dee Wilson.  

Eddy Clement does his accustomed solid work as musical director and conductor of the Downey Civic Light Opera orchestra. Lighting (by Design Partners Inc. and Kim Killingsworth) and sound design (by Jay Lee) are both first-rate, and Bich N. Vu deserves highest marks for the production’s great costumes, from Covent Garden Cockney-wear to the fancy black-and-white gowns worn for the “Ascot Gavotte” to the exquisite eveningwear worn by ladified Eliza.  The uncredited set for Higgins’ study is a particularly elegant, detailed one, and the Downey Civic Theatre’s two side-sets work perfectly as a chez Higgins anteroom and as Mrs. Higgins’ garden. The rest of the scenes are played before painted scrims, the Covent Garden opening sequence coming across a tad two-dimensional because of this. 

All in all, Downey CLO’s 54th Anniversary Season is off to a terrific start with My Fair Lady, Culliton’s Henry Higgins and Carpenter’s Eliza Doolittle alone worth the price of admission.  Surrounded by an oh-so-talented supporting cast, this My Fair Lady is a Fair, Fair Lady indeed.

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd. , Downey.

–Steven Stanley
October 2, 2009

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