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A ‘loverly’ by-the-book ‘My Fair Lady’ at Opera House

There’s much to be said for leaving the classics untouched.

Why go to the trouble of creating a new spin on pumpkin pie, of experimenting with a new way to cook the turkey, of complicating grand old traditions with strange new bells and whistles?

Just give us the old standards, and give them to us according to the old recipes, now tattered and yellowed and spattered with sauce.

That’s just what director David Bondrow did with “My Fair Lady,” which opened Friday in the Lancaster Opera House in a period-perfect production straight out of 1956.

The Lerner and Loewe classic has stood the test of time primarily because of the strength of its characters, transposed almost directly from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.” Musical theater fans know them like family members: The pugnacious, self-satisfied and borderline insufferable professor Henry Higgins (Kevin Leary) and the equally strong-willed if much more likeable Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Chrissy Vogric).

Second only to the magnetic pull of Henry and Eliza are the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, backed by Frederick Loewe’s impossibly bouncy score, replete with such canonical songs as “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Bondrow’s production, the latest in an impressive string of expert, straight-ahead renderings of American classics, packs a great deal of energy and talent onto its small stage.

Leary, who also choreographed in addition to starring, has worked some sort of magic with the cast to execute energetic dance numbers restrained just enough to seem at home on the Opera House’s pint-sized proscenium. From the bustling opening scene on a damp London street to boisterous numbers such as “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” Leary’s light touch is everywhere apparent and the cast executes it with, if not Broadway-level dancing ability, enough verve to captivate the crowd.

Now, to the main question: Leary, as Higgins, is nearly every bit as detestable as you might hope, digging into Shaw’s best and most vile bits of dialogue with evident joy. But he injects enough humanity even into his most offensive early utterances that his characterization of Eliza as a “squashed cabbage leaf” or a “heartless guttersnipe,” you can see he’s doing it more out of insecurity than genuine malice. His performances of the comic songs “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “Hymn to Him” are delightful, even if, for a professor of phonetics, he occasionally says his lines too quickly for easy comprehension.

As Eliza, Vogric is often spirited and always lovely, even if she doesn’t quite match the frequency of Leary’s high-pitched passion. She does best when surrounded by the company, as in “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Her credibility isn’t helped by the wig she’s been burdened with, which appears to weigh about 15 pounds. Even so, she delivers beautifully in the scene that is at the comic heart of the show, during a high-class gathering at Ascot wherein she pronounces Cockney phrases in the Queen’s English to torrents of laughter from the crowd.

Standout performances also come from Scott Kaitanowski as Alfred P. Doolittle and Alex Hunnell as Freddy, whose delivery of “On the Street Where You Live” is about as treacly as you’d want it to be.

All of this unfolds on a serviceable set complete with noble columns by Andrew Reed and against the excellent music direction of Fran Landis, in whose well-oiled orchestra I could not detect a false note. In all, a splendid production done by the book. And when the book is this good, why do it any other way?