‘My Fair Lady’ makes a big splash at Muny

Two venerable British actors’ finesse helped bring out the classic elegance of “My Fair Lady,” opening the Muny Opera’s 97th season with considerable aplomb.

In impeccable performances, Anthony Andrews and Paxton Whitehead reprised roles as Professor Henry Higgins and Col. Pickering, anchoring a thoughtful, traditional production.

Among a long list of stage and screen credits, Andrews (Emmy nominee and Golden Globe winner for “Brideshead Revisited”) appeared in the acclaimed Cameron Mackintosh 2003 revival in London’s West End, and Whitehead (Tony nominee for ‘Camelot”), a George Bernard Shaw expert, was in Hollywood Bowl’s 2007 rendition.

Their intuitive skills and commanding stage presence, along with a savvy ensemble, surmounted the stormy weather problems to make opening night a grand triumph.

This was no easy feat. While popular, the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical is a challenging show of serious heft — the dialogue is difficult, dialects must be mastered, characters must hit the right tone in social status, and the music is demanding, not to mention the grandiose set pieces and lavish costumes.

This lauded adaptation of Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion” about class, transformation and gender politics is set in Edwardian London. A poor flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, is noticed outside Covent Garden by a pompous phonetics intellectual. The following day, she arrives at his Wimpole Street home, asking for speech lessons, eager to improve her station in life. He concocts an ambitious experiment after a bet by fellow phonetician Pickering.

The feisty cockney Eliza (Alexandra Silber) masters elocution and appears cultured in her social outing “tests,” but then feels used, and storms out into the waiting arms of besotted Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

Silber, a strong actress able to adjust quickly to the role’s capricious emotions, seemed to struggle with her musical numbers at first, but after “I Could Have Danced All Night,” settled in, delivering strong “Show Me” and “Without You” in the second act.

She worked well with both Andrews and Matthew Scott, who endeared as the head-over-heels Freddy, robust in “On the Street Where You Live” and made the most of his funny moments.

Scott was a definite crowd favorite, along with local treasure Zoe Vonder Haar, who charmed as the stately yet droll Mrs. Higgins, as well as Peggy Billo as indomitable housekeeper Mrs. Pearce.

A tad disappointing was Michael McCormick as Alfred P. Doolittle. I expect a broader Stanley Holloway-like caricature of Eliza’s scallywag father, and he toned it down.

Chris Bailey’s stylish choreography – so brilliant in “West Side Story” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” here — was noteworthy, but I’m not sure his decision to cluster “Get Me to the Church on Time” instead of spreading it out worked as well.

Marc Bruni (“Beautiful” on Broadway) smartly directed the show, focusing not just on the ‘wow’ moments but also accentuated the book’s wit, and emphasized the smaller details. The nuances caught my attention, making me appreciate the intent of the overall work. Purists will delight in the sumptuous affair.

But let’s face it, what men said and thought about women decades ago is outdated, therefore much of misogynist Higgins’ dialogue is gasp-worthy — and at times, offensive, if truth be told (“impudent hussy” being one of the tamer phrases I can repeat).

However, Andrews’ nimble way with words helped convey Higgins as not just an insufferable prig, but also clueless about his thoughtless cruelty. And Eliza dishes it right back – hooray! (And of course, Higgins is taught a lesson).

Andrews made the role his own, sly and hilarious on “I’m An Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him,” and genuinely bereft on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Dare I say he is heir apparent to Rex Harrison?

Nevertheless, with the classy Whitehead, the duo showed what top-shelf talent can do on that imposing stage.

If “My Fair Lady” is any indication, we are in for an exciting summer under the stars.

“My Fair Lady”

Where: The Muny in Forest Park

When: 8:15 nightly through Sunday

Tickets: www.themuny.org

Box Office: 314-361-1900