Female Persuasion

Arizona Theatre Company takes on transformation with 'My Fair Lady.'

This month, that pine tree in your living room isn't the only evergreen with which you can celebrate. Arizona Theatre Company has harvested that sturdy old favorite My Fair Lady, and although it's a somewhat more compact presentation than flourished in the wilds of Broadway 45 years ago, this home-sized version hasn't been hacked off from its roots. It's a traditional, tastefully adorned production topped with at least one shining star.

Many once-classic musicals now seem clumsy, naïve or terminally un-p.c., but My Fair Lady has hardly aged at all. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's musical story of how Professor Henry Higgins, on a bet, transforms Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into what could pass, linguistically at least, as a "lady" is drawn from prime material: George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, itself inspired by the Greek story of a sculptor who falls in love with his statue.

This abounds with great stuff to snare academic critics and ordinary audiences for decades to come.

Denizens of the ivory tower can argue about the story's stance on class structure, the oppressive "male gaze," the social construction of reality, British imperialism reflected in the male "colonization" of women, and even a queer-studies take on the dynamic between Higgins and his long-term houseguest, Col. Pickering (and just why can't a woman "be more like a man," eh?).

Meanwhile, out here in the real world, the rest of us can delight in one of the finest examples of an old-style musical, one about people rather than scenery, full of melodies you haven't already forgotten by the second verse, structured with songs that propel the story instead of threading the flimsiest of plots through unrelated, prefabricated ditties.

The whole thing needs a first-rate singing actress in the role of Eliza Doolittle, which ATC has found in the person of Kate Fisher. It's a bit eerie how she can sometimes physically resemble a young, compact Julie Andrews, but in other respects Fisher takes the part on her own terms. She's not afraid to be rather annoying early on, reveling in Eliza's howling, childlike lack of self-control, and she manages the transformation into a glamorous if not perfectly poised young woman beautifully. She also delivers her songs with nuance, unafraid to fall momentarily out of synch with the nine-member pit band to emphasize a telling phrase.

The Higgins role, designed for non-singer Rex Harrison, offers Norman Large few vocal challenges aside from some tongue-twisting patter. It's nice to hear what Large can do with an actual melody when composer Loewe finally gives him "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," but this is no surprise after his turn as the befuddled captain in last season's HMS Pinafore. Large also has a firm grip on Higgins' character, an entertainingly misogynistic intellectual bully who is not so smug that he becomes completely repugnant.

Frank Kopyc plays Eliza's opportunistic, irresponsible father, unashamedly one of the "undeserving poor," with a very faint streak of unpleasantness in a role usually taken by character actors who seem too desperate to be liked. Michael Santo is a steady Col. Pickering, and the smaller roles are shared by a company of first-rate singers and dancers. If there's a nit to be picked, it's with Christopher Corts as Freddy, Eliza's admirer; his English accent fades in and out through "On the Street Where You Live."

David Ira Goldstein has provided fluid, sensible and on occasion even subtle stage direction, punctuated by Patricia Wilcox's expert choreography, lively without forcing the dancing singers to gasp through the choruses.

With a 17-member cast--huge by ATC standards--only 10 or 12 people are mustered for the major production numbers (half as many as would be ideal), but the stage seems thinly populated only during the ballroom scene and for a couple of moments in "Get Me to the Church on Time." Otherwise, this production carries enough exuberance, love and finesse to make you believe that this stagey Covent Garden is teeming with downtrodden yet persevering characters, that a Cockney flower girl can become a princess, and that musical theater still has some life in it.