Mary Jo Vitale plays Eliza Doolittle in upcoming production of ‘My Fair Lady’

A transformed woman
A domineering man.
A smitten lover.

Put them all together and you have three main characters in “My Fair Lady,” which plays Savannah Center March 12-14. Alex Santoriello, Mary Jo Vitale and Mark Steven Schmidt understand that the essence of the musical is self-discovery and transformation.
Each performer brings something personal and reflective to the roles of Henry Higgins (Santoriello), Eliza Doolittle (Vitale) and Freddy Hill (Schmidt).

The ‘My Fair Lady’ cast shares a tender moment with, from left, Alex Santoriello as Henry Higgins, Mary Jo Vitale as Eliza Doolittle, and Dan Pona as Col. Pickering.

Vitale plays Eliza with a naive charm that morphs into hard-earned self-confidence. “She has to be a strong woman, because she is a survivor,” Vitale said during a break in a recent rehearsal break.

Eliza’s mental and physical makeover at the hands of Professor Higgins is the core of the Lerner and Loewe musical, based on the play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw.

“My Fair Lady” is directed by Santoriello and produced by Joan Knapton of KC Productions. Also in the cast: Dan Pona as Col. Pickering, Janet Maloney as Mrs. Higgins, Tim Casey as Alfred Doolittle and Billie Thatcher as Mrs. Pearce.

But the fate of Eliza Doolittle is the central focus.

“Eliza has to become something she’s not,” said Vitale, whose operatic voice and dynamic stage presence flesh out Doolittle. Vitale is also brimming with confidence and it shows in her portrayal of the new Eliza after she endures Higgins’ teaching torment to master language and culture.

“Eliza has an identity after she becomes a lady,” Vitale said. “She has self-respect and she knows she’s worth more as a human being, than ever before.”
Higgins, meanwhile, must confront and overcome his own personal challenges.

“At first I had a lot of difficulty with this role,” said Santoriello, a veteran of the Broadway stage adding he saw a lot of himself in this character.

Santoriello, as a director and on stage, can be loud and demanding. Off stage, he can be quiet and pensive. Santoriello is an accomplished theatrical teacher, with an uncanny ability to mold actors and bring out their best performances.

“Higgins can be difficult but you have to see the humanity in the man,” Santoriello said. “I think Higgins is offering Eliza the opportunity to change the pecking order of class through education. When Shaw wrote his play (1913), it showed the (second-class) status of women. Higgins enables Eliza to change for the better.”

Mark Steven Schmidt plays Freddy, who woos Eliza, played by Mary Jo Vitale in ‘My Fair Lady.’

Higgins and Doolittle have a strained relationship, but there is an undercurrent of romance between them.

“It starts as an adversarial relationship but they grow closer to each other,” Vitale said. “They do develop a mutual respect for each other. But this is not a love story; it’s a story about a woman finding herself.”

Love, however, is in the air for Freddy Eynsford-Hill, played by Mark Steven Schmidt. He has appeared in local operas, but said this is his first stage musical in eight years.
Freddy is head over heels for Eliza and playing him is a whimsical challenge.

“He’s a fun character and a bit of a mama’s boy,” Schmidt said. “The hardest part is getting the proper accent, but Alex has been helping me and I’m working hard to get it right.”

Schmidt is also getting used to being in the middle of a musical.

“It’s been a long time, I’m still getting in stage shape,” the handsome tenor said. “Everyone has been great to me. I’m just happy to be a part of ‘My Fair Lady’.”

The cast of ‘My Fair Lady’ gets ready for its run March 12-14 in Savannah Center.

One of the highlights of the musical, is when Schmidt sings, “On The Street Where You Live.”

“When Mark sings that song, it’s just amazing,” Vitale said. “He has such a passion for singing, and he has worked so hard in this role.”
Santoriello agreed.

“Mark has that timeless voice. He is doing a great job.”

Also in the cast of characters: John Rogerson, Gerry Sherman and Dave Olsen. Choreography is by Violet Ray.

Tony Violanti is an award-winning journalist and writes for Villages-News.com.