My Fair Lady; Heritage Theater Festival; Culbreth Theatre at UVA

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 There are times when a reviewer is taken down a peg. Admittedly, the outstanding quality of the Heritage Theatre Festival’s season opener, My Fair Lady, was one of those moments for this critic. As Henry Higgins transformed Eliza Dolittle from a screeching Cockney “guttersnipe” to softspoken lady, my “citified” theater snobbery—I hail from New York, D.C. and Richmond—was converted to adoration for Charlottesville’s thespians.

The Heritage Theatre Festival opened July 1 with My Fair Lady, starring Emelie Faith Thompson and Allen Fitzpatrick. For more information on the Heritage Theatre Festival, which runs through the first week of August at UVA, visit www.uvahtf.org or call the box office at (434) 924-3376.

Fitzpatrick’s blunderbuss Higgins finds a perfect foil in Emelie Faith Thompson’s Eliza. Thompson’s wonderful combination of singing and acting talent embodies the best Eliza this critic has yet seen. She demonstrates the versatility to pull off both the rough and refined versions of the character with aplomb. She also is able to pay homage to the well-known songs while managing to tweak them into her personal style, pleasing both die-hard fans and providing something original for the jaded. Her rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” is as sweet as one of Eliza’s violet nosegays and her “Just You Wait” is deliciously vengeful.

Allen Fitzpatrick brings a fresh, if gruff, slant to Henry Higgins. He uses a great deal of yelling, however, to get his edginess across—something surprising in an actor of his caliber and experience. However, he proves to be a meaningful interpreter of song, with “Why Can’t the English” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Almost everything about this production is “loverly,” beginning with Bill Clarke’s stunning stylized set. Clarke creates a black and white shadow box of sorts, depicting industrial London as a constant reminder of the play’s context. His minimal yet gorgeous set pieces allow the book, lyrics and outstanding performances to evenly share the attention in a show that usually focuses on scenery and costumes.

Other notable performances include Kenneth H. Waller as Alfred P. Doolittle and Daniel Berryman as Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Waller holds the audience in the palm of his hand whenever onstage, eliciting laughs at every turn. Berryman sings “On the Street Where You Live” with such heartfelt conviction that when he appears for the reprise in Act II the audience laughs out of the absurd belief that Berryman’s Freddy might have actually waited outside the house for days on end for Eliza to emerge.

My Fair Lady runs through July 9, and the troupe is slated to perform several other shows through early August. And if this production is indeed a marker for the quality of the remainder of the Heritage season, then we’re in for some high caliber theater. In other words, I think they’ve got it.—Mary Burruss

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