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THEATER REVIEW : The Enduring Splendor of a Sophisticated 'Lady'


"My Fair Lady," which is essentially indestructible, spills over the 1,400-seat Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center like "the rain in Spain," to commandeer one of the show's classic lyrics.

Now midway into its third season, the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, whose subscribers have increased from 1,000 to more than 9,000, is doing something right in a short time. While "My Fair Lady" may seem foolproof, its sweep, its tricky Cockney accents, its raffish edge and visual and musical splendors make it a lofty challenge for any company.

The show is tougher to pull off than, say, "Oklahoma!," the Civic Light Opera's last production. As pristine as that show was, this production is more bountiful and rounder in its great score, design, high-life/lowlife appeal and light comedy.

Sharon Mahoney's Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower-girl-turned-shimmering-maiden, sufficiently negotiates her early guttersnipe persona but really finds her stride when she blossoms into a regal figure. No matter how many times theatergoers have heard it, when Mahoney warbles, "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" and William McCauley responds, "I think she's got it! . . . By George, she's got it!" you are reminded just how enduring this show is.

Once Professor Henry Higgins has erased Eliza's Cockney "A-o-o-o-w!" and restored her H 's to their proper place, co-stars Mahoney and McCauley slip into an unspoken bond. It convincingly prepares you for their subsequent and hurtful reproaches and Higgins' wryly lyrical lament, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

As the elitist mentor wagering an arrogant bet that he can transform scruffy Eliza of Covent Garden into a model of ballroom decorum, McCauley's Higgins is alternately irascible, vulnerable and peevishly affable.

At the end, during McCauley's heartfelt capitulation to Eliza in the song "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," McCauley gives the audience a Higgins who casts a poignant glow over this 1956 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical.

According to the show's program, unusually full of insightful background, including the lyrics to all of the show's vocal treasures, the major difference between the musical and George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" is stark and simple: Shaw insisted that Eliza wind up not with Professor Higgins but with her simpering suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (the vocally robust Robert Townsend).

Contributing sharp flavor from the jumbo 35-member cast are Jack Ritschel's Colonel Hugh Pickering, Higgins' dear friend who is as cozy as a rumpled slipper; Tim Robu as Eliza Doolittle's up-from-the-gutter father suddenly wrestling with middle-class morality, and handsome Clare Alden Ryan as Higgins' wise mom padding about like a serene duchess.

At times, director Mark Madama re-creates a sublime union with the original Broadway achievement, especially in the delicious scene at Ascot Racetrack. There, Higgins tries out Eliza's untested sophistication on the landed gentry and assorted bluenoses as they bunch up in their lush attire (including dazzling black and white Victorian gowns with a modern feel) to follow the ponies with humorously studied indifference.

The sets are from the original touring production, dusted off and smartly refurbished by the Civic Light Opera. They're still a knockout, enough to make you feel like you could dance all night.

* "My Fair Lady," Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, at Aviation and Manhattan Beach boulevards; 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, matinees at 2 Saturday and Sunday, 7 p.m. Sunday; $20 to $35. (310) 372-4477. Ends May 22. Running time: 3 hours.

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