‘My Fair Lady’ dancing down the runway

Backed by two pianos, Quintessence Theatre Group produces an enchanting musical whose roots stretch back to ancient Greece and Rome.

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Leigha Kato as Eliza Doolittle and Gregory Isaac as Henry Higgins in Quintessence Theatre Group's production of

Leigha Kato as Eliza Doolittle and Gregory Isaac as Henry Higgins in Quintessence Theatre Group's production of "My Fair Lady." (Photo courtesy of Shawn May)

“My Fair Lady” is far more than fair in a current production by Quintessence Theatre. It’s enchanting. The musical — the company’s first — unfolds on a runway with the audience on either side of its span. The production, at the Sedgwick Theater in Mount Airy, takes off on that runway, which becomes a strip of space in London 105 years ago.

Quintessence has created magic several times before with little more than a chair or a table and a whole lot of compelling storytelling going on. Although this “My Fair Lady” has a ton of furniture by comparison, it also has no standard set and doesn’t need one. The runway becomes its own little world.

It’s bookended with pianos at opposite ends. This “My Fair Lady” is a version of the 1956 musical backed solely by two pianos and in this case, two terrific pianists: Amanda Morton and Christopher Ertelt. They’re great but, truth to tell, the show is a big production that merits an orchestra. That towering, overpowering feeling that actor Lee Cortopassi sings about smoothly in “On the Street Where You Live” is a little smaller without the orchestral swells. And where’s the rattling percussion when in a dream, the flower girl Eliza Doolittle — played and sung with charming esprit by Leigha Kato — marches her unfeeling mentor Henry Higgins to the firing squad?

It’s not there. But so much else is, that I’m not sure in the end anyone will care. Certainly audiences haven’t so far — Quintessence is announcing today that it’s extending the show a week, through Dec. 23. It moves along in Alex Burns’ kinetic staging, outfitted in Christina Bullard’s often elegant costumes that shimmer in the lighting by David Sexton. But what strikes me most is the solid way the performers interpret their characters, the general high quality of the way they act through their songs. Their dancing of Kaki Burns’ choreography seems a little cautious; maybe it’s the runway boundaries they have to mind. (That also may be the reason the two main characters leap on to the furniture when the rain in Spain is falling in the plain, and at other times.)

Kato’s Doolittle has the perfect insufferable Henry Higgins to teach her how to be a lady with proper English: Gregory Isaac. He plays the nasty know-it-all linguist with a smirk that seems to be born to the character. Isaac not only rolls his eyes, he finds a way to roll his entire face. His pal Colonel Pickering, who bets that Higgins can’t make a respectable ingénue out of an urchin, is portrayed by the always excellent Doug Hara. Bradley Mott and Marcia Saunders are outstanding in a number of roles, especially as Eliza’s bum father and Higgins’ disdainful mother, respectively.

Audiences are disposed to like “May Fair Lady,” whose fourth Broadway revival opens in April. People mostly overlook its indulgent length (about three hours, with a first half that runs for an hour-45) and the hard-boiled sexism of Henry Higgins — plus the way its creators, Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, fiddled with the ending of their source material to make Eliza a picture of subservience. That’s not how George Bernard Shaw topped off his play “Pygmalion,” although Lerner and Loewe are faithful to it in every other way, even in the information we get from the lyrics.

Shaw himself created “Pygmalion” from one of the tales in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” written a couple millennia back, about a sculptor who creates his version of a perfect woman. The story, in English translation from the Latin, is painstakingly chalked onto a wall in the lobby of the Sedgwick — a nice illumination of what’s about to happen inside. The evolution from Ovid to “My Fair Lady” also backs up Quintessence’s mission to present traditional and new takes on the classics. In Quintessence’s “My Fair Lady,” that line across time radiates.

“My Fair Lady,” produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, is extended through Dec. 23 at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. in Mount Airy. 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.

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