Opera Pacific's "My Fair Lady" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center is casual, ambling, refined: With its restrained sensibilities, this production is more interested in elegance than earthiness.
Friday's opening night required a dose of patience from those expecting to see fur flying between Eliza Doolittle and Prof. Henry Higgins as soon as she lets loose her first caterwauled Cockney vowel. The show started slowly--very slowly--lacking an amplification of character or scene.
But this Lara Teeter-directed production finds momentum in its own deliberately constructed way. By the time Eliza is firmly in place at the professor's home, annoying him and enchanting Col. Pickering with her commoner's charm, Teeter is making good use of the bounties in Lerner and Loewe's classic score.
While most of the acting is more steady than sensational (there are a few exceptions, especially Patti Cohenour's glowing portrayal of Eliza), this "My Fair Lady" gleams in its handing of all these wonderful songs. There have been interpretations of "My Fair Lady" that lean more to the social, even erotic, shadings of Shaw's "Pygmalion," but Teeter, with sound help from conductor Glen Clugston, has more of a traditional intent--very little distracts from the music.
Teeter smartly does whatever she can to showcase Cohenour, who creates a bond with the audience almost immediately. There's a sense that the actress is given carte blanche, for she does her share of big takes, pushing her face here, her body there.
But Cohenour, who most recently played Christine in Broadway's "Phantom of the Opera," doesn't go too far; the character's own excessiveness is defined without the performer intruding excessively. And by the end of the first act and continuing into the second, she reveals, in quiet ways (for musical-theater standards) how feelings of displacement and cynicism accompany her new, uptown breeding. And Higgins handling of her amounts to nothing short of psychological manipulation.
As for the voices, Cohenour's stands out, with only Stephen Lehew as the smitten Freddy giving any sustained competition (his "On the Street Where You Live" is a hummer). "My Fair Lady's" score revolves around Eliza, and Cohenour strikes often, with special emphasis (and results) on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "I Could Have Danced All Night" and the potent "Show Me."
Noel Harrison is not the large presence of other interpretations of Higgins, but, like the production itself, he gathers confidence, especially in the second act. While not flashy, Harrison is stable and tasteful throughout, and he saves his best for last--"I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and the scenes leading up to it click nicely.
In secondary roles, Ben Wrigley provides chummy and eccentric flavor as Eliza's dad (he does a hilariously rubbery dance a la Buddy Ebsen during "With a Little Bit of Luck"), and S. Marc Jordan has his moments with his understated and slightly flummoxed Col. Pickering.
The sets (by Robert O'Hearn) shouldn't disappoint, but they are a bit inconsistent, running a gamut from near-perfect (Higgins' study is a haven of fastidiousness, and the Embassy Ballroom, with its faux glass panes, is striking) to merely serviceable (the scenery of poor Tottenham Court Road looks almost cheesy). Kendall Smith's lighting is well-organized and, at times, subtle, and Charles R. Caine's costumes are both witty and varied.
'MY FAIR LADY'
An Opera Pacific production of the musical with music by Frederick Loewe and book by Alan Jay Lerner. Directed and choreographed by Lara Teeter. With Patti Cohenour, Noel Harrison, Margaret Price, Stephen Lehew, S. Marc Jordan, Jim T. Ruttman, Jim Hormel, Kevin St. Clair, John-Scott Moir, J. Steven Campanelli, Dave Bethards, Dough Carfrae, Matthew J. Scully, Ben Wrigley, Valerie Miller, Erica Rogers, Debbie Rothstein, Laura Boyd, Philip Chaffin, Michele Patzakis, Elizabeth Saunders, Jennifer Young, Andrea Paris, Carolanne Marano and Constance Houghton-Day. Sets by Robert O'Hearn. Lighting by Kendall Smith. Costumes by Charles R. Caine. Conducted by Glen Clugston. Plays Tuesday through Sunday, July 2, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $15 to $60. Information: (714) 556-2787.