DENNIS — They just don’t make musicals like they used to. Often it’s just as well: We like to imagine that we’ve grown more sophisticated over the decades. It’s all the more delightful, then, when a somewhat neglected gem like “My Fair Lady” — a 1957 Lerner-and-Loewe humdinger too long the purview of high-school drama clubs and community theaters — gets a thoroughly professional, thoroughly enjoyable dusting off.
Hunter Foster’s remount, at the venerable Cape Playhouse (est. 1927), is utterly faithful and yet utterly fresh. Maybe I was too clueless in my own youth to perceive the feminist/socialist underpinnings of this perennial crowd-pleaser, but here they’re brought to the fore, lightly clad in hummable tunes and energetic dance.
You couldn’t ask for a better set of sparring partners than Ashley Brown as Cockney “guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle and Jeff McCarthy as her snobby, socially obtuse tutor, Professor Higgins. Both have impressive Broadway credits (she as Mary Poppins, he in roles too numerous to list). Not only is their chemistry credible, adding spice to the musical’s enticingly ambiguous denouement, but both are superb singers.
McCarthy gets to explore the full expressivity of Higgins’s jeremiads (no clipped Rex Harrison Sprechstimme for him), and Brown plumbs the longing built into Eliza’s signature songs — “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” — without ladling on an ounce of schmaltz. So heartfelt is her rendition of the latter, don’t be surprised should you find yourself choking up. She’s also magnificent when angry, acing the protest songs “Just You Wait” and “Show Me.”
As Eliza’s ne’er-do-well-father, James Brennan seems to be operating at a slower RPM: He’s more of a laid-back Bill Nighy type than the usual big bruisers, which luckily makes his treatment of his meal-ticket daughter — his attempt to pimp her out emerges in sharp relief here — a bit less appalling. As Higgins’s sidekick Colonel Pickering, Ed Dixon embodies the soul of charitable urbanity. Catherine Flye is so winning in the tiny role of Higgins’s fondly exasperated mother that she earns her own exit applause.
Every member of the chorus deserves praise as well. Not only are all fine dancers and singers (Foster employs their skills as distraction during scene changes), they’re so “on” — in a good sense — that during crowd scenes one is hard pressed to keep an eye on every last one, but the effort is worthwhile. The “Ascot Gavotte” — featuring luscious gowns by costumer Gail Boldoni instead of the standard shopworn bus-and-truck knockoffs of Cecil Beaton’s black-and-white scheme for the 1964 film — is especially engaging: Foster adds a few surprise furbelows to the general air of well-bred nonchalance.
Everybody loves a good makeover story. It’s tempting to imagine this production, or elements thereof, making it to Broadway, where there hasn’t been a “My Fair Lady” revival since 1994. But in the meantime this production is a treat in its own right, accessible at a fraction of the cost, and definitely worth an excursion. Throw in a bit of beach time, and you have a perfect excuse to venture to the Cape.
My Fair Lady
Musical by Alan Jay Lerner
and Frederick Loewe
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”
Directed by Hunter Foster
Choreography, Lorin Latarro. Set, Jason Sherwood. Lights, Erik Fox. Costumes, Gail Baldoni.
Sound, James McCartney.
Presented by the Cape Playhouse
At: the Cape Playhouse,
through Aug. 8.
Tickets: $33-$79. 877-385-3911, www.capeplayhouse.comSandy MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.