BWW Review: More Lovelier Than Ever, MY FAIR LADY Blossoms at Riverside

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's near masterpiece of a musical MY FAIR LADY took Broadway by storm 60 years ago this year and has become a 20th century classic. I am happy to report the plucky flower girl from the mean streets of London who gets molded into a proper lady is as lovely as ever as presented by Riverside Performing Arts Center. The sparkling wit, unrequited romance, musical hall turns and lush music are all performed with love and panache in director Patrick A'Hearn's production, featuring well-known DC actor Thomas Adrian Simpson as Henry Higgins and Riverside veteran Quinn Vogt-Welch in the title role.

Simpson has full command of Higgins as a bully along with his exacting humor while allowing glimpses of his human heart buried within his bellowing persona. If you are used to a talk-singer as Higgins (in the Rex Harrison vein), you may be surprised at this well-sung phonetics master; Simpson maintains the crip diction and piss-elegant delivery while allowing Higgins' songs to blossom to full lyrical effect. "Why Cant' the English" and "A Hymn to Him" shine as comic gems, while "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" is a proper ballad for the blustery bachelor who has been captivated by the charms of Eliza Doolittle.

As Eliza, Vogt-Welch finds the correct balance between the Cockney guttersnipe taken in by Higgins and the eloquent young lady who finds not only her proper speaking voice but how to stand on her own two feet after her tough won makeover. As in her earlier Riverside appearances as Christine in PHANTOM and Maria in WEST SIDE STORY, Vogt-Welch's soaring soprano is perfectly suited to the score originally written for the young Julie Andrews. She charms in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and spits fire in "Just You Wait." Her version of "I Could Have Danced All Night" was also a winner.

The chemistry between Higgins and Eliza has to have a delicate balance, or as they say on Facebook about some relationships, "it's complicated." Simpson and Vogt-Welch allow the un-romantic and unconventional romance to perk along in its circuitous route and it is a delight to see.

The leading man and his fair lady are ably supported by other Riverside veterans who are perfectly cast and shine in their respective roles. Robert Beard makes for a genial Watson to Simpson's Holmes, if you will, as Colonel Pickering. As Eliza's would be love interest, Calvin Malone has the ringing tenor and affable nature to bring juvenile Freddy Eynsford-Hill to life, especially when he is delivering the lovesick anthem - and breakout pop hit - from the score "On the Street Where You Live."

Other familiar faces include Elizabeth C. Butler as Freddy's mother, Andrea Kahane as Higgins' housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, Carol Hagy as mother Higgins, and Alan Hoffman as the oily Hungarian Zoltan Karpathy. Along with the members of the hard-working ensemble, the supporting cast keeps the show moving with energy, skill and the oh-so-English tone of the piece as a whole - also a hallmark of A'Hearn's attention to detail for all of his Riverside productions.

Newcomer to Riverside but a familiar performer to Richmond audiences, Doug Schneider takes on the scene-stealing role of Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle. As Doolittle, Schneider is a natural ham, mining the comic moments for all they are worth, and filling the stage with a bigger than life presence for the English musical hall-like songs "A Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time." Doolittle's numbers and all of the dances in the show practically leap off the stage, courtesy of the energetic cast and the sprightly choreography by Shawna Walker-Hallinan. An experienced dancer who has also choreographed several shows for Riverside, Walker-Hallinan has outdone herself this time, providing choreography that shows influences such as original MY FAIR LADY dance director Hanya Holm and other classic choreographers of the stage and screen (Onna White and the duo of Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood come to mind).

The fine cast and direction of Riverside's MY FAIR LADY is surrounded by design work at is some of the best I have seen at the dinner theatre. Adam Koch's scenic design is elegant, flexible and complements the story and flow of the production. Likewise, the costumes by Gaye Law and Jimm Halliday place the show Edwardian era with styles that are truly eye-catching. The black and white "Ascot Gavotte" scene is one such moment, as is the big reveal when the Higgins, Pickering and the audience see the transformed Eliza for the first time in her Embassy Ball gown.

The icing on the proverbial cake has got to be the expert musical direction by Walter "Bobby" McCoy, complete with live orchestra. It may be a small ensemble but Loewe's operetta-inspired tunes sound just fine and the music department ably supports the cast from overture to finale.

One Quick Note on the Dinner: Since Riverside is a dinner theatre, I would be remiss if I did not praise the chefs and kitchen staff for continually improving the food offerings. I highly recommend the personal shepherd's pie, possibly the tastiest entrée I have enjoyed at Riverside. I will not attempt to be a food critic but for the value, flavor, and hefty portion size, I savored every bite of the pie. The garlic cheddar biscuits were a wonderful complement to the main dish. Other dinner options for MY FAIR LADY include herb-roasted chicken quarter, catch of the day, and penne pasta primavera, with a nice selection of sides, desserts, and beverages of all sorts. (To be fair, there is also an option to buy tickets for the show without dinner; simply inquire at the box office for options.)

Follow Jeffrey Walker on Twitter @jeffwalker66

Two hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission.

MY FAIR LADY continues through May 8, 2016 at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA 22406. For information or tickets, go to Riverside Center HERE or call (540) 370-4300.

PHOTO CREDIT: Riverside Center

Opening Night: March 23, 2016

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