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Finishing strong

My Fair Lady classes up the joint



For the Missoula Children’s Theatre, saving the best for last is becoming a habit. Last year MCT’s community theater season concluded with the company’s executive director, Jim Caron, taking the reins as director of a full-immersion version of the classic musical Damn Yankees—complete with ballpark vendors selling items in the aisles and a show-opening singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—which starred Luke Walrath, a Broadway veteran and founder of Whitefish’s professional Alpine Theatre Project. This year seems familiarly similar, as MCT closes its season with another elaborate version of a classic musical, My Fair Lady. Caron again directs a cast that features Walrath, as well as two other Alpine Theatre creators in fellow Broadway vet Betsi Morrison and accomplished stage and screen actor David Ackroyd. With such a stacked lineup of established local heavies and imported ringers, it’s no surprise that My Fair Lady, like Damn Yankees, tops this MCT season with the company’s best show of the year.

It’s almost unfair to make comparisons between My Fair Lady and other MCT productions. Walrath, Morrison, Ackroyd and Caron are polished to the point that they make the performance look easy and, by virtue of their experience, much more professional than standard community-theater fare. It’s rare to see this much star power collected on one Missoula stage, and even rarer in a musical.

It’s fitting, therefore, that such a well honed cast stars in a production about the haves toying with the have-nots.

My Fair Lady is the popular story of a peasant flower seller, Eliza Doolittle (Morrison), who becomes the subject of a bet by a linguist, Professor Higgins (Ackroyd), who believes he can transform her into a woman of the highest regard by teaching her how to speak and act properly. Doolittle’s education comes with a price, further distancing her from her con-artist father (Caron), and elicits the romantic attentions of both a hapless high-society chap (Walrath) and her teacher. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and adapted as a musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Fredrick Loewe in 1936, the production is a well-known staple in American culture: the original stage production launched Julie Andrews’ career and the 1964 film version featured Audrey Hepburn; the play more recently inspired episode-long parodies on “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”

MCT’s version doesn’t break any new ground, but succeeds by showcasing its talented cast. Ackroyd is regal and charming as Higgins, coming across like a skinnier Sean Connery. Ackroyd’s résumé is extensive and diverse—he’s appeared in films opposite Charlton Heston and Dolph Lundgren; in television shows such as “Murder, She Wrote” and “Xena, Warrior Princess”; onstage in the Ernest Hemingway-inspired off-Broadway production It Just Catches; and he’s currently the narrator of The History Channel’s “History’s Mysteries”—but his demeanor seems tailored to command the stage in a classic role such as this.

Walrath and Caron play minor parts by comparison, but both bring enough to the performance to ensure their subplots don’t drag. Fred Willecke, another professional actor with regular stints at repertory companies in Kentucky and Utah, is strong as Higgins’ confidante and fellow language scholar, Colonel Pickering.

It’s Morrison’s Doolittle, however, who centers this production, and she is more than capable of carrying the load. Her harsh mannerisms and bitter pre-gentrification cockney accent are wickedly effective—she punctuates her persistent distaste with a guttural sound reminiscent of a dying mountain goat—and her transformation into an attractive, well-mannered woman of society is natural and funny. Morrison played Doolittle last year during Alpine’s performance of My Fair Lady, and her familiarity with the role, embellishing all of its subtleties, is thoroughly engaging.

In addition to the all-star cast, Caron pulls no punches with an ornate, multi-faceted set design. Created by Catherine Dixon and Caron himself, the stage rotates through a dozen different environs, from Higgins’ study to a bustling London street to a horse race at Ascot. The production is just under three hours long, but none of that, surprisingly, is lag time spent transitioning from one part of the detailed set to the next. Caron’s direction (credited “in association with Walrath”) is also responsible for smoothly managing a supporting cast numbering more than 50.

If it weren’t for Caron’s sure hand in all parts of the production—as director, designer, actor—this MCT show could be criticized for being a little too reliant on the Alpine Theatre Project. But that criticism feels flimsy in light of the fact that, despite being yet another rehash of a musical that’s been done more often than Jenna Jameson, this version of My Fair Lady still comes across as appealingly fresh. It’s another impressive finish for MCT, and leads one to wonder if they’ll trot out the same formula once again for next year’s closer. An early indication is yes—MCT recently announced that 2007’s season will end with yet another classic musical, Oklahoma. Alpine Theatre Project members should clear their calendars.

MCT Community Theatre’s My Fair Lady continues through Sunday, May 14. Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening performances at 8 PM; Sunday at 6:30 PM; and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM. Call 728-PLAY.

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