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"My Fair Lady" is a toughie, even for professional companies.

Thebreadth of talent required to bring these timeless characters to life is daunting.

The score and libretto are so familiar that any audience can spotan unsuitable impostor almost immediately.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle is the fact that these characters were so definitively sketched by the original cast that damning comparisons are far more inevitable than usual.

Rex Harrison's nimble tongue spewing forth Henry Higgins' linguistic egotism, Julie Andrews' lyric soprano voice inimitably describing her "loverly" cockney dreams, and Stanley Holloway's one of a kind Alfred P. Doolittle all became classic interpretations way back on opening night and have remained so to this day.

Bravo, then, to the Annapolis Dinner Theater for gamely taking up the "My Fair Lady" challenge and doing such a creditable job with it. While this is a production that won't win rapturous swoons from dyed-in-the-wool Lerner and Lowe purists, the strengths of the ADT's efforts are considerable.

To begin with, this is a handsome production. Newly appointed resident director Roland Chambers continues a trend he began in "Fiddler on the Roof" when he expanded the theater's physicalspace by ingeniously employing subtle staging and set maneuvers thatallowed the show to play so spaciously and vividly. Earlier ADT productions now seem claustrophobic by comparison.

In "My Fair Lady," the opening Covent Garden shenanigans, the doings of the Higgins household, and the terrific ensemble numbers like "The Ascot Gavotte" and"Get Me to the Church On Time" play convincingly in a hospitable space.

Costuming and sets, by the way, are also prodigious, which helps immensely in putting across this most atmospheric of musicals.

But the most glamorous setting in the world won't help "My Fair Lady"if the actors are not up to snuff. For the most part, they are.

Arthur Laupus is an engaging Henry Higgins. Those half-sung soliloquies emerge with the full-blown egomania that makes Henry Higgins such adelicious character.

Accompanied by a recorded tape that tends tospeed up the entire score, Laupus was somehow able to keep the rapid-fire lyrics coming without sounding out of control.

Higgins' moments of non-introspection ("I? Walk over anyone?") were particularly wonderful.

Dan Higgs is a scene-stealing Alfie Doolittle whose face, posture and quick tongue know what to do with a joke. His comedic energy is admirable throughout.

The purist, however, could find a problem with this duo: the lack of anything that passes for an authentic English accent. Laupus frequently sounds much too clipped, with "A" vowels that aren't nearly broad enough ("Thet" for "that"; "hegs" for "hags").

Higgs makes a brief go of an accent in Act I but, by Act II, all Cockney pretenses are gone.

In a plot that revolves around nuances of language, this is a bit of a problem. Only Marvin Hunter as the sympathetic, fuddy-duddyish Colonel Pickering seems a male linguistically at one with his role.

No such problem with Kate Campbell Stevenson either, as she brings off Eliza Doolittle's "aaows" most stylishly.

Stevenson is an accomplished actress. The comic Eliza comes across beautifully as does the vulnerable lady who must facelife squarely when the charm of her metamorphosis wears off. And, when her time comes, Stevenson looks every bit a princess.

Yet, evenhere, an authenticity problem presents itself. The authentic Eliza -- the "I Could Have Danced All Night" Eliza -- ought to be a lyric soprano of considerable vocal delicacy.

Stevenson possesses a beefy mezzo voice with a sizable vibrato that seems more a candidate for the contralto solos in Handel's "Messiah" than the bright, breezy "Wouldn't It Be Loverly." She gets through the character numbers quite well ("Just You Wait," "Show Me"), but there are some incongruous moments in the more lyrical interludes when Eliza's signature songs simply don't sound like Eliza.

I thoroughly enjoyed Celia Rocca as a more-humane-than-usual Mrs. Pearce, as well as the show's full-bodied chorus and excellent dance troupe.

Hard-core "My Fair Lady" purists, then, might want to remind themselves that the Annapolis Dinner Theater's buffet beats an evening home alone with the original cast album.

And I suspect that most theater-goers will agree with Friday night's enthusiastic crowd that the ADT's "Fair Lady" is more than merelyfair.

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