As the landmark musical “My Fair Lady” nears its half-century mark, McCarter Theater Center is offering a vest-pocket version in its intimate new performing space, the Roger S. Berlind Theater. The production might be described as Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” with songs rather than the triumphant, timeless tuner. However, with a cast of 10 and the accompaniment of twin pianos, the show retains its exuberance despite a decided shortage of grandeur.
Devoted fans will miss the show’s legendary and abundantly melodic overture, and the Covent Garden assemblage that gathers on a rainy night for the opening scene is so devoid of hustle and bustle that it prefaces an uncomfortably cautious beginning for the principal players.
What triumphs is the faultless score, with its savory melodies by Frederick Loewe and deliciously cunning lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. In the end it is well served by a superbly attractive cast. Kate Fry is a delightfully appealing Eliza Doolittle, who makes the transition from guttersnipe to grand lady with an abundance of grit and charm. She has a sunny presence and a perfectly lovely singing voice.
Michael Cumpsty brings a suave youthfulness to the role of the priggish phonetics expert — though, in his mid-40s, he’s the same age as Rex Harrison was when he first acted the role. Cumpsty, who most recently crooned in “42nd Street,” reveals a pleasantly sturdy baritone that serve the songs flavorfully. He is also a veteran Shakespearean actor who knows enough about elocution to speak with distinction.
The score is honorably served, and “The Rain in Spain” remains an infectious showstopping moment, despite the fact that the hurried celebration of Eliza’s elocution victory falls short of a celebratory dance.
What suffers greatly is the “Ascot Gavotte” sequence, represented by a mere handful of aristocratic turf fans, and the pivotal fancy dress ball is so briefly waltzed through that Eliza’s transformation is hardly realized.
Simon Jones, himself an acceptable Higgins in a Paper Mill production a decade ago, is a formidable and genial Col. Pickering. Jim Stanek is a shade too sappy as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, but as the ever-patient suitor he sings “On the Street Where You Live” with the perfectly targeted thrust of a fervent heart.
Michael McCarty invests Alfred Doolittle with the right amount of blowsy gusto, but both “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” suffer greatly without his coterie of boozing buddies, Covent Garden buskers and attending commoners.
The knowing Mrs. Higgins is played with the twinkling charm we have come to expect from Jane Connell. She has the innate ability to take her mark and deliver a line with bull’s-eye precision. Patricia Kilgarriff portrays the formidable no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and she governs Higgins with a firm and knowing hand. Jeff Edgerton and Stephen Mo Hanan perform most effectively in several parts.
As reconceived by director Gary Griffin, the musical at its core retains its glory, and once one becomes accustomed to its caressing intimacy, the show fits as comfortably as Higgins’ blasted slippers. Lerner’s text remains surprisingly free of scissors marks, in spite of the fact that 10 actors assume the roles of a show that once boasted more than 40 characters and as many ensemble members.
Thomas Murray and Charles Sundquist, seated high above at twin grands, provide a firm account of the score. The double-tier set serve the action well enough, with the occasional addition of Higgins’ desk or his mother’s garden wicker chairs.
The costumes are reasonably smart, but fall short of true elegance. Well-focused lighting design accents the action admirably, illuminating a musical that retains its dignity in any size.