Quad City Music Guild's current presentation of My Fair Lady runs just a few minutes shy of three hours, and there isn't a dull moment in it.
Granted, I'm perhaps the ideal viewer for the production, as I'd never seen Lerner & Loewe's musical warhorse on stage before, and have less-than-vague memories of George Cukor's Oscar-dominating film version. (I think I watched half of it on HBO. Once. When I was 12.) But even if you're as well-acquainted with the show as you are with your own phone number, this My Fair Lady, under the resplendent direction of Kevin Pieper, might seem revelatory; it's a hugely scaled endeavor that's been pulled off with what looks like astonishing ease. At Thursday's preview performance - without question, the most technically sharp, inspiringly confident Music Guild preview I've yet attended - not even the violent thunderstorms rattling the Prospect Park auditorium were enough to rattle its presentation. Not even when the storms, for a couple of minutes in Act II, caused the theatre's power to go out. This production feels lit from within.
Lord knows, though, that its surface charms are considerable. Permit me what may be an impolite question: Was My Fair Lady's costume budget equal to the GDP of a small industrial nation, or did it just seem that way? From the beggars' rags to the multi-hued ball gowns to the black-and-white ensembles at the Ascot Racecourse, Deb Holmes' designs - which must've totaled more than 75 - were so consistently stunning that the show could've been performed in mime and left audiences wholly satisfied. And director Pieper's set design, somehow, was every bit as impressive as the wardrobe; the means by which a series of stage flats morphed into Henry Higgins' living room (complete with gorgeously rendered bookshelves and fully functional staircases) were a special effect nearly on a par with a falling chandelier or descending helicopter.
The visuals here are extraordinary, and the sublimely calibrated portrayals of the cast make them pop all the more; there are performances in My Fair Lady so magically right that they frequently make you giggle out of sheer happiness.
Those who've been in thrall to the talents of Jenny Winn in the past had every reason to expect magic from her interpretation of Eliza Doolittle. The performer doesn't disappoint; with touching honesty and vibrant comic skill, Winn deftly underplays her character's transformation from penniless flower girl to accidental socialite, and her dreamy soprano makes familiar standards such as "I Could Have Danced All Night" sound remarkably fresh. (She also looks jaw-droppingly beautiful in the white party dress designed for Eliza's embassy debut.) Yet Winn's bursts of empathetic anger are no less transfixing, in part because she's been cast opposite Mark McGinn's Henry Higgins, and a more formidable, and enjoyable, sparring partner could hardly be imagined.
Again, I have only the slightest recollection of Rex Harrison's take on the role, but if he was as good a Higgins as McGinn is, that Oscar and Tony were well-earned. What I was completely unprepared for in My Fair Lady was just how mean Higgins is during most of his dealings with Eliza (so mean, in truth, that some audiences might consider her deranged for putting up with him), and McGinn doesn't for a minute soft-sell his elocution professor's nastiness; he revels in it. The actor is outrageously funny when tossing off withering critiques and sarcastic bon mots, but his shrewd, subtle portrayal, complemented by excellent vocals, attains an unexpected richness as the show progresses; McGinn's Higgins reveals both the power and peril of snobbery. I can't see how this performance could be any better. In a production of wonders, McGinn's work might stand as its most wonderful element of all.
Yet given how much superlative work is going on here, that's an incredibly tough determination to make. My Fair Lady is teeming with pleasures: John VanDeWoestyne's lower-than-lowbrow Alfred P. Doolittle, who makes loutishness and drunkenness look like states of grace; Erin Lounsberry's harried housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, aghast at the incivility around her (and privately loving it when Alfred smacks her on the ass); Nick Munson, who finds the self-effacing humor in youthful haughtiness; Susan Granet, providing the dryly witty tree from which Higgins' apple fell; the Cockney quartet of Nathan Bates, Adam Beck, Martin Duffin, and Ken Hill, whose splendid harmonies bring to mind dozens of shows, from The Music Man to Forever Plaid, that you'd kill to see them cast in. (Beck's marvelously strong baritone was almost as intimidating as the thunder.)
As for Harold Truitt's Colonel Hugh Pickering, an endearing fop who's in a sweetly distracted world of his own, let me just say this: I've seen Truitt in several shows, have run into him several times in Music Guild audiences, and have even interviewed him twice, and when the lights came up at My Fair Lady's intermission, I turned to my friend and said, "Whoever that is playing Pickering is amazing." Yet Truitt is so deeply, emphatically in character here - so effortless yet so hysterical - that I'm not at all ashamed for not initially recognizing him; this is what sometimes happens when performers leave the realm of acting for the trickier, more satisfying realm of being.
If I have a gripe with the show, it's not with its presentation - it's with Lerner & Loewe's score, as the songs, in general, seem to last a verse or two longer than my interest in them. (The duo is also a little reprise-happy for my tastes.) But there are far worse criticisms to make than complaining about receiving too much of a good thing, and from its leads to its design to its ensemble vocals to Tami Parchert's choreography - her "Ascot Gavotte," in particular, is brilliant - Music Guild's My Fair Lady, even at nearly three hours, is just enough of an outstanding thing.
For tickets, call (309) 762-6610.