Star is fine indeed, in a 'Lady' that's only fair

Even a city with as small a theatrical scene as Charlotte has a few performers who inspire ongoing loyalty. Susan Roberts Knowlson is one, and if you see CPCC Summer Theatre's "My Fair Lady," you'll find out why.

Her Eliza Doolittle is equally convincing as a squawking flower girl whose violets get trampled by men's boots and a serene lady whose hopes get trampled by their egotism. Her comedy is well-timed, her gentle pathos touching.

But the production has far to go to come up to her standard. Part of the problems at Friday's show were technical, including harsh lights that found singers too late or exposed them like fugitives caught by police.

But interpretative choices also drained the charm from what may be the most charming great musical of the 20th century. Dennis Delamar caught the brusqueness and selfishness of Higgins, but without irony or good humor. Craig Estep was lifelike as Cockney philosopher Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, but Doolittle needs to be larger than life. Charles LaBorde made Colonel Pickering a gruff, preening sidekick for Higgins; he's supposed to be the gentleman on whom Eliza models her behavior, but he merely seemed like Papa Doolittle with a better tailor.

The musical adapts George Bernard Shaw's comedy "Pygmalion." Eliza comes to Higgins for elocution lessons, so she can get a job in a flower shop. He decides to prove his skills by passing her off as a high-born woman at a ball, so he can thumb his nose at British class distinctions. The relationship blossoms into friendship and, perhaps, a chance at an unusual kind of love. (Shaw was a bachelor who favored platonic connections.)

Designer Timothy Baxter-Ferguson has re-created the look of the 1956 Broadway show, especially in Higgins' elegant study. Director Ron Chisholm and music director Drina Keen keep the pace snappy, often to good purpose if occasionally with too much speed. There's no reason to do anything radical to this musical, which is set in Edwardian London, and they haven't.

Yet we do need to see further under its surface. Shaw and, to a lesser extent, lyricist/adapter Alan Jay Lerner, want us to pity newly educated Eliza; she's no longer fit for manual labor but ill-prepared for any kind of meaningful work. Her lone socially acceptable option is marriage, which ought to strike us (and did strike Shaw 97 years ago) as unfulfilling.

Higgins, pampered son of a wealthy family, has remained as ignorant of life in his way as Eliza is in hers: He babbles about women's souls without knowing what he means, until one stands up to him. The play and musical are about their joint growth, but the ending here seems more like a timid concession to the expectations of a soft-hearted audience.

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