by Michael Bowen & r & There are three moments in the first act of the Civic's current production of My Fair Lady (through Oct. 29) that convince us that we're in for an evening of entertainment that's accomplished in its own right, distinct from whatever Hepburn-and-Harrison memories we may retain from the 1964 movie. Because make no mistake, mate, director Troy Nickerson and his talented cast have stepped up to one of the highest peaks in American musical theater and nearly reached the top. Despite some second-act flatness and some deficiencies in one of the leads, the Civic's season opener is a visually attractive, sometimes raucous, often quite moving rendition of a beloved musical.

The first of those three moments arrives when Kendra Kimball as Eliza Doolittle emerges from behind the men's quartet to join in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" With her face smudged above her flower girl outfit, Kimball engages in some delightful dance steps with her partners, then uses her beautiful, yearning soprano to depict the kind of world we all long for. It's a sequence that, as it should, puts us in the corner of the underdog flower girl.

The second moment comes when David Gigler as Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, spills drunkenly out of a pub, soon launching into "With a Little Bit of Luck." Almost unrecognizable underneath his long dustman's coat and bowler, Gigler creates a detailed and very funny comic portrait: wiping his nose on his sleeve, hogging chairs, toying with expensive instruments, hopping with the delight of a potbellied Bacchus who's light on his feet.

Gigler leads the chorus in some of Nickerson's and Ryan Callan's inventive choreography: step-slide swaying, some unexpected foot stomping, some square-dance moves. Dressed "like a ruddy pallbearer" for his "Get Me to the Church on Time" number, Gigler gets risqu & eacute; with the girls, leading them in foot-stomping trios and side-to-side galumphing that's a delight to watch.

While the opening scene (flower sellers outside Covent Garden) seemed tentative and slow, after that Nickerson and Callan have designed some natural dance sequences. The "poor Professor Higgins" sequences are deftly handled, giving us a sense of how much time is passing as Eliza struggles with her lessons, and there's a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment when Eliza finally learns how to enunciate all those vowels in "The Rain in Spain" -- and when she, along with Thomas Heppler as Henry Higgins and Wes Deitrick as Col. Pickering, executes a Spanish-tinged dance of joy.

But the third of the opening-act highlights arrives soon after, in Kimball's rendition of "I Could've Danced All Night" -- stretching her soprano to impressive heights, arms outstretched, isolated in a spotlight, a vision of bliss.

Kimball's Eliza isn't a performance that's merely "good for community theater." It's just very good, period.

There are still more things to admire about the Civic's Lady. Peter Hardie's versatile set provides plenty of dark, wooden furnishings for Higgins' study, serving as a half-dozen exteriors as well. Nik Adams provides opera posters and a far-off perspective of St. Paul's Cathedral that evokes the neighborhood right there 'round London Bridge.

Eliza's gowns alone would have made the costumes of Susan Berger and Jan Wanless outstanding -- but the list goes on, with men in wedding-cake suits, common laborers all grubby, a slew of color-coordinated servants in Higgins' household.

For the "Ascot Gavotte" horse race scenes, Berger and Wanless show off one elaborate black-and-white gown after another in what's clearly intended as the show's peak of couture. But all the Edwardian elegance slows down the pace -- and Adams' pastel tents on the backdrop curtain, while inviting in themselves, detract from the stark B & amp;W colorless scheme. It's a misstep that slows a wonderful first act.

There are twice as many memorable songs in the first half as there are after intermission, which goes a long way toward explaining why this Lady's second act sometimes fell flat. Heppler's portrayal of Higgins doesn't help. He has the fussiness, the devil-may-care single-mindedness of a British academic, but problems crop up in the first act in "I'm an Ordinary Man," when both the vocal and instrumental attacks on the chorus ("but put a woman in your life") were weak. On exit lines like "damn you!" and "let the hellcat freeze!" (both aimed at Eliza), Heppler wasn't irate enough.

Heppler doesn't quite catch the ambiguity of the medley of tunes (and emotions) that his character is supposed to express in among snippets of "You Did It" and "Without You" and the famous "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." The wavering -- will he surmount his own selfishness and grow in much the same way Eliza transformed herself? -- isn't quite there yet. But Heppler does achieve real pathos -- in his finest moment of the entire evening -- when, caught in that same spotlight, he makes the final refrain of "Accustomed to Her Face" feel like a breakthrough moment: At last, the confirmed bachelor isn't quite sure of just how confirmed he is.

While Lerner and Loewe's finale hints at romance more than Shaw's Pygmalion did, both shun the happily-ever-after. For My Fair Lady's depiction of someone striving toward an ideal, look to the lady herself -- and to Kendra Kimball's wonderful turn as Eliza Doolittle.

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