Scenery and music both make favorable first impressions at CPCC Summer Theatre's season opener, My Fair Lady, but neither impression proves to be durable. As attractive as I find Timothy Baxter-Ferguson's design for the London cityscape that opens the show, the pub where Alfred P. Doolittle seeks refuge -- and is repeatedly thrown out of -- is embarrassingly flimsy, no more than a façade. Far more handsome is the imposing wood-grained study of linguist Henry Higgins, but alas, it's also grander than the Embassy Ballroom, where his protégée Eliza Doolittle scores her glittering triumph.
Music director Drina Keen's ensemble is a little keyboard-heavy for my taste, but my main complaints after the overture occur when Frederick Loewe's score needs to yield more to Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics. Tempo is too quick for us to fully savor Higgins' acerbic wit as he wonders "Why can't the English learn to speak?" and while the fluctuations in dynamics help with Alfred P's bawdy "With a Little Bit of Luck," tempo also needs to slow down for the punch lines at the end of each stanza.
These observations shouldn't be revelations to director Ron Chisholm, since the central theme of My Fair Lady -- and its inspiration, Shaw's Pygmalion -- is the transformative power of language. All evening long, as the pleasures of witnessing the full book and score unfold, Chisholm seems to be championing pacing to the detriment of those pleasures. Superficiality even extends to make-up and Jamey Varnadore's costumes: whether we're outside Covent Garden or on the Tottenham Court Road, costumes and faces are as freshly scrubbed as they are at Ascot. Eliza's clothes are horrid enough, but it's questionable whether the bath is so urgent.
With such lax attention to detail, most of the talented cast underachieves. Craig Estep takes surprisingly well to Linda Booth's choreography as Alfred, but a large chunk of the rascal's comedy remains on back order. The jollity and tolerance that Charles LaBorde brings to Higgins' colleague, Colonel Pickering, make for a fairly effective contrast with Henry's surliness. But his scruffy and frazzled appearance, so appropriate for LaBorde's recent leading roles in Foxfire and Death of a Salesman, undermine the Colonel's cavalier elegance. Even LaBorde's Marquis de Sade look would work better, and though he hardly sings at all, my wife Sue felt she was out of luck with that little bit.
Dennis Delamar, who did Higgins the last time CP presented it in 1989 and again at Theatre Charlotte in 1996, has smoothed out Henry's delicious eccentricities nearly to the vanishing point. What I find better this time around are the pride he takes in Eliza as she shines at the Embassy and the poignancy he infuses into "I've Grown Accustomed to her Face" -- spoiled only by the scene change that Chisholm decrees in the middle of it. Now he intervenes?
Amid such bungling, Susan Roberts Knowlson's belated first crack at Eliza stands out as a fresher flower than any she sells. Her outsized Cockney braying in the opening scene, contrasting dangerously with the other London street people we encounter, ought to spark more outrage than we hear from Delamar. The whole curve of her personal development -- linguistics, deportment, and consciousness -- is majestically rendered, and her voice still carries the bloom of Eliza's youthful longing in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "I Could Have Danced All Night." As for Eliza's fire, Knowlson delivers robustly in "Just You Wait" and "Show Me."
So yes, when Higgins runs after Eliza to his mother's garden, it's easy enough for Delamar to marvel at what Eliza has become -- for he could just as easily drop all pretense and marvel at Knowlson's performance. Her brio is enough to outweigh the shortcomings that peep out elsewhere in this Fair Lady. Further consolation will be found in the callowness of Andy Faulkenberry as Eliza's hapless admirer, Freddy. So purely did he sing "On the Street Where You Live" that, for once, I welcomed its reprise.