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Review: Act II Playhouse's "My Fair Lady"

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Braithwaite and Cella as Higgins and Doolittle. Photo by Bill D'Agostino.

There seemed to be two primary thoughts on people’s minds as they entered the Act II Playhouse for Friday’s opening night of My Fair Lady. The first was just how utterly amazing Tony Braithwaite is (he is playing Professor Henry Higgins, and is a well known face in the Philly theater world). The second was a cautious optimism about how a 130-seat theater was going to pull off such an epic musical with a cast of just 11 people, three of which were doubling as the musicians for the show.

My Fair Lady is an iconic musical, the kind of show where the audience probably knows at least one song from beginning to end, and has a definite impression of how it ‘should‘ be performed. The Act II Playhouse was well aware of what they were about to tackle, and thanks to masterful casting, staging, choreography, and artistic direction, Act II’s My Fair Lady did a wonderful job of fulfilling the audience’s expectations (mine included).

Let’s start with the biggest decision: casting. Tony Braithwaite (who is Act II’s incoming Artistic Director) was born to play Professor Henry Higgins. Braithwaite has perfected Higgins’ exasperated indignation, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off him when he was on stage. It isn’t easy to step into a role that was made famous by the likes of Rex Harrison, but Braithwaite owned this role entirely. I think any fan of the original Broadway production or the movie will fall in love with Braithwaite’s portrayal of the curmudgeony ‘ordinary man’.

"With a Little Bit of Luck" Photo by Bill D'Agostino
"With a Little Bit of Luck" Photo by Bill D'Agostino

Another excellent casting choice was Mike Corr as Mr. Doolittle. The man stole every scene he was in. The audience was just in stitches during “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” And with such a strong ensemble cast playing off Corr’s antics, these numbers were easily some of my favorites in the show.

But speaking of favorites, “On the Street Where You Live” happens to be one of my personal favorite Broadway songs of all time, and Jonathan Silver (playing Freddy) knocked it out of the park. He can come sing outside my window anytime he likes, that’s for sure. Seriously. Anytime.

Jonathan Silver as Freddy. Photo by Bill D'Agostino

But of course, I can’t forget the delightful Eileen Cella as Eliza Doolittle. Her portrayal of the young gutter snipe turned ‘Hungarian princess’ was earnest and enchanting. And that voice! It was like listening to a young Julie Andrews.

Aside from casting, there were several brilliant staging and artistic decisions in the show. I wondered how Act II was going to give some of the ‘bigger’ musical numbers that same feeling in a smaller space, but they completely pulled it off. The flexibility of the sets and the wise use of space during the dance numbers completely worked for me, and the numbers felt just as grand as they should be. “With a Little Bit of Luck” was particularly successful and a prime example of such smart staging and choreography (and damned entertaining to watch).

If you’re a fan of My Fair Lady, or maybe just a fan of anyone in the stellar cast, get yourself out to Ambler’s Act II Playhouse to see this production. Its run has already been extended through June 3rd, as tickets are selling quickly. Act II Playhouse is located at 56 E. Butler Avenue in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Visit www.act2.org or call 215-654-0200 for tickets.