“Just You Wait” Till You See Braithwaite and Cella Soar in My Fair Lady - Review

Edwardian Britain springs to life, exactly a century later, at Act II Playhouse in Ambler. The stellar cast - the largest cast for any production in Act II’s history - makes the “suspension of disbelief” (a classic quote by Coleridge, noted in the show’s program) extremely easy for the audience. You have absolutely no trouble believing, that you have stepped out the of the railroad suburb of early 21st-century Ambler, and into the world of early-20th century London.

Tony Braithwaite first played Professor Henry Higgins, while a sophomore at his beloved alma mater of St. Joseph’s Prep in 1987 - and where he still runs the top-notch, professional-quality theater program. A quarter-century later, he has reprised the role, and expertly brings the quintessential, educated English gentleman to the stage. (He is the incoming Artistic Director of Act II Playhouse, in July).

Although we’ve seen him perform many times, in a multiplicity of roles, we believe that this role is among the best tailored for his considerable talents. (Move over, Rex Harrison- or as Braithwaite wittily described it afterward – “the Rex Factor”!) Having now seen Braithwaite play it, we really can’t imagine the role being played any better on stage. It’s not just that his performance is flawless – it’s brilliant.

Of course, it is not surprising that Braithwaite delivers the proverbial theatrical goods, every time he goes on stage. (This is Braithwaite, after all!) Instead, the most astounding elements of this production are twofold.

The first is the staging of a classic, lavish, huge-ensemble cast musical in the friendly confines of the 130-seat Act II Playhouse, which closely resembles a black box theater, as opposed to the more traditional, Center City venues for big-time musicals. And My Fair Lady, in particular, has usually been performed with highly elaborate sets, lush with pre-First World War properties and scenery. But the resourceful set designers pack every inch of the available space with props, and they manage to pull off the feat. (As they put it during the talkback – “we wanted to get the maximum ‘bang for the buck’, in terms of the space we had available.”)

You feel like you’ve been magically transported to Professor Henry Higgins’ library, or an alley in London. With all of the seats so close to the stage, you often feel as if you are witnessing the scenes as if they were real life – as if you were passersby, or guests at any of the events.

A further irony is that the traditional cast-of-thousands ensemble, is being played by just several actors. Although few in number, they do the work of dozens, and Anabelle Garcia, Owen Pelesh, Harrison Post, and Jordi Wallen deserve credit for an outstanding job in their supporting roles. (Braithwaite said that the ultimate tribute to the ensemble’s performances was a question they had received after a performance: “why didn’t the rest of the ensemble emerge for curtain calls at the end?” – i.e., the ensemble actors had given this patron the impression that there were far more of them on stage, than there actually were!)

The other astonishing aspect of this production of My Fair Lady is the sparkling performance by Act II newcomer Eileen Cella. The Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, isn’t an easy role for a young actress, particularly since it requires learning both the Cockney and aristocratic accents – and having to sing in both!

Cella brings a youthful enthusiasm to the role, a superb voice, and most importantly, the stage presence, required for such a demanding lead part. This character has to transform herself from a lower-class London girl to a refined lady, in the course of two and a half hours. Cella makes this transformation with grace and aplomb, and proved herself more than worthy to the challenge. Her chemistry with Braithwaite enlivened the production, and she genuinely brought Eliza Doolittle to life- and with the effectiveness of a far more experienced actress.

Cella was absolutely the right actress for this part. If her performance in My Fair Lady is an indicator of her potential, she has a very bright future in the theatrical world.

Making his initial appearance at Act II, Mike Corr is terrific as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father. His boundless enthusiasm and energetic dancing complemented the excellent vocals of Jonathan Silver as Freddy, and Chris Faith’s spot-on portrayal of Colonel Pickering, the friend of Higgins whose bet is the catalyst for the plot.

The one-man band of Robert Dritton on piano, accompanied the cast throughout the musical, in a virtuoso performance, with Sonny Leo as music director.

Aside from the phenomenal performances by the cast and the expertly constructed set design, there is the simple reality that the book of My Fair Lady remains funny, over a half-century after it first appeared on Broadway in 1956. The lyrics to the Lerner and Loewe classic are witty and entertaining, and you will laugh out loud, many times. These actors would be able to enliven even mediocre source material, but the fact that the libretto and songs hold up so well, several decades later, make the experience that much more enjoyable.

The decision to stage My Fair Lady in such a small theater, was a daring one for Director Bud Martin. And it pays off. The much smaller cast permits the familiar story to shine even more clearly, without the usual lavish sets and scenery. The irony of the story is that it is fundamentally about a professor of phonetics – whose life is entirely devoted to words and language – who struggles to find the words necessary to convey his emotions toward Eliza, for whom he has fallen.

1912, the year in which the show is set, has an appeal to audiences within popular culture, which continues to resonate, even a century later. Examples include the ongoing interest in Titanic and the surprise PBS hit, “Downton Abbey”.

If You Want to Go – Make Sure You Get Your Tickets, ASAP!

Due to overwhelming popular demand (and with good reason), My Fair Lady has been extended not once, but twice! It now officially runs through June 17, 2012. However, get your tickets early, as it is a small theater and it can and does sell out frequently. You can visit the Act II Playhouse web site or call them at 215.654.0200.

It is located at 56 E. Butler Avenue, Ambler, PA 19002. Ample parking is available, also. Ambler is centrally located in Montgomery County, and is not far from the top of the Blue Route (I-476) or the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

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