Jim Filippelli has grown accustomed to “My Fair Lady,” the musical his Panas Players will stage in Cortlandt Manor this week, the final show to open in the Lower Hudson Valley’s 2012 high-school-musical season.
The indefatigable director still glows a bit when he remembers the first time he directed Lerner & Loewe’s musical take on Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” about a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle and a rude professor of dialect and elocution by the name of Henry Higgins.
It was spring 1981. A new performing arts center was going up at the school on Croton Avenue, which meant that Higgins, Doolittle, Filippelli & Co. still had to schlep everything to Lakeland Middle School (now Van Cortlandtville Elementary School) to put on their shows.
“We had the kids bused over to the middle school,” Filippelli says.
When the PAC opened in December 2011, the first show was “The Fantasticks.” The following spring, it was “Oklahoma!”
Being a sentimental sort of guy, Filippelli has gravitated back to 27A Wimpole St. and Professor Higgins regularly, staging “My Fair Lady” in 2001 (to mark the PAC’s 20th anniversary) and this year, for the (sort of) 30th anniversary (if you go by academic years).
“I just took a liking to it,” he says. “I said that whatever anniversary we’d have we’d come back to it.”
This week, Panas will welcome back alumni from those past productions — to sit in the crowd and remember their own encounters with “Ascot Opening Day” and “The Rain in Spain.” There will be a dessert reception Friday and Saturday, starting at 6:30 p.m., before the 8 p.m. curtain.
The musical may be the same, but Filippelli and the kids are changed.
“I’m an old relic,” he says with a smile. “I was a lot younger then.”
Directing a musical is more challenging these days, Filippelli says.
“Students are overextended, their schedules, they’re pulled in many directions. Now, you have to be agreeable and acceptable to the varied schedules of the students. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. It comes with the territory. I’m sure every director feels that.”
There are 43 students in the “My Fair Lady” cast, 35 in stage crew and the 20-piece pit orchestra is half-student, half-adult.
Filippelli talks about how three strong girls tried out for Eliza and how all three could have played the role. (He double-cast the role: Sierra Nelson plays Eliza on Friday matinee for senior citizens; Liora Bogin plays her Friday and Saturday night.) Then he talks about his “gem,” Steven DeNardo, a freshman who auditioned to play Henry Higgins and seemed to channel Rex Harrison, the man who created the role.
“The cast has literally gravitated to him because he knows every line of the show,” Filippelli says, a bit of wonder in his voice.
“Well, I’ve looked at the script a lot,” DeNardo says, in his own defense. “I just love doing this so much.” The freshman says he figured out the key to playing Higgins.
“You have to think of it from an outside perspective, to look at everything objectively,” DeNardo says. “You can’t ever let yourself succumb to emotion. You have to be very proper and above everything. Then what’s beautiful about the role is that in one big downfall at the very end, he falls completely to emotion.”
“My Fair Lady,” Walter Panas High School, 8 p.m. May 4 and 5. 914-739-2823, ext. 555.
Photo by Joe Larese/The Journal News: From left, Stephen DeNardo, Gerard Lisella and Bryan Williams perform during rehearsals for “My Fair Lady” at Walter Panas High School.