Hooked on Phonics – a review of “My Fair Lady”

by Michael Buzzelli

Down and out Eliza Doolittle (Anette Barrios-Torres) becomes a guinea pig in an experiment concocted by Professor Henry Higgins (Jonathan Grunert) and his colleague, Colonel Hugh Pickering (John Adkison) in the Lerner and Loewe classic musical, “My Fair Lady.”

The show is based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” which is based on a Greek myth of a Cypriot sculptor who carves a beautiful woman out of ivory, and falls in love with his own creation.

Higgins believes he can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse with the power of proper pronunciation (say that three times fast). He invites Eliza into his home, where he begins to teach her phonetics. She spends the majority of her days reading and enunciating her vowels.

His experiment is a success! But, like Pygmalion, Higgins falls in love with his creation.

Eliza, however, is now more uncertain about her future than ever, finding no place to fit in, and runs off with Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Nathan Haltiwanger), a young man who has been mooning after Eliza since he first met her.

Eliza confides in Henry’s mother (Becky Saunders) in her atrium. When Henry goes to tell his mom that Eliza has fled, he finds her there and the two have an epic confrontation. It’s one of the many will-they-or-won’t-they moments that keeps you on the edge of your seat (skip the liquids, this show is three-hours long).

Side note: There’s a subplot with Eliza’s father, Alfred (Michael Hagarty) and his cronies, Harry (Nicholas Carroll) and Jamie (Ryan Farham)  that has very little to do with the main story, but has some of the best songs. “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get me to the Church on time” are completely superfluous to the plot, but are absolute highlights of the show.

Henry Higgins (Jonathan Grunert) gets ready to take Eliza Doolittle (Anette Barris-Torres) to the Embassy Ball.
Higgins takes Doolittle out for a spin in her first event with high society, a horse race.

Barrios-Torres is an amazing Eliza. She has an incredible vocal instrument, and she is lovely…er…”loverly.”

Adkison’s Pickering is a total joy. He plays the man with an effete allure. Its hard to nail nuance when you’re playing to the back row, but, somehow, Adkison manages it.

Hegarty is marvelous as the drunken lout of a father. He gets to perform two of best numbers in the show. “Get me to the Church on time” is a glorious tribute to excess. It’s a showstopper.

Haltiwanger’s “On the Street Where You Live” is a masterpiece.  Haltiwanger is a delightful Freddy. He is handsome, poised and a masterful singer. Let’s hope the character falls in love again.

Higgins’s mother is the kindest of high society matriarchs. The antitheses of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet Crawley. Saunders plays her to perfection.

Additional show highlights include Christopher Isolano as the wickedly funny Professor Zoltan Karpathy, and Maeghin Mueller’s Mrs. Pearce.

Let’s face it, Professor Henry Higgins is a disagreeable fellow, Frasier and Niles Crane (“Frasier”),  Charles Emerson Winchester, III (“M*A*S*H*”) with a touch of Oscar the Grouch (“Sesame Street”) rolled into one. He treats Eliza like his prize pig at the county fair.  Grunert plays him comically broad, but seems to lack the charm he needs to win her back. The writing is partially to blame here. The chauvinism doesn’t age well. In every other way, there is a beautiful timelessness to the production.

Fantastic sets by Michael Yeargan matched with flawless costumes by Catherine Zuber.

Special shout out to sound designers Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake. On opening night there wasn’t one glitch or popped P.  The sound was crisp and clear and it sounded like we were in the Higgins household.

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. Fall in love all over again at “My Fair Lady.”


“My Fair Lady” runs from January 30th to February 4th at the Benedum Center, 237 Seventh Street, between Penn and Liberty, downtown Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here

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