A sculptor, on tiptoes, reaches up to kiss the ivory girl that he has carved. His lips barely graze hers before he draws back, a sudden realization crossing his face. The lips of the statue are warm. His name is Pygmalion; and his creation, Galatea, has come to life.
More than 1,900 years after Ovid’s Metamorphoses, British playwright George Bernard Shaw paid homage to this myth with a new play, Pygmalion. Transported to 1912 London, Shaw sought to make a statement on the rigidity of British class structures and the increasing independence of women.
Although Shaw was not the first to adapt the tale for the stage, his play was deemed easily adaptable by bookwriter-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe in 1956. My Fair Lady’s popularity would skyrocket the career of a 21-year-old Julie Andrews and culminate in a blockbuster 1964 film adaptation.
Shaw analogizes Pygmalion by way of posh phonetician Henry Higgins, who takes on cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle as a fixer-upper. He intends to polish her manners, fix her speech, and sculpt her into a statuesque lady for all to admire. While intended as a colossal ego-stroke, affections begin to materialize between sculptor and living statue.
Decades later, we must ask ourselves whether Pygmalion and My Fair Lady are critical or supportive of the Higgins’ misogynistic behavior. One is cautiously optimistic that PlayMakers Repertory Company can present a production of My Fair Lady in 2017 and not infuriate observant audiences.
There are three major offending plot points in the play: (1) A frightened, whiny Eliza submits to Higgins’s every whim; (2) Eliza falls in love with Higgins despite his abuses; and (3) Eliza eschews the wooings of a tender young suitor and returns to Higgins’ cold arms.
Inventive PRC guest director Tyne Rafaeli has reinvented and rejuvenated this work by doing a 180 on all three points in shocking fashion, taking the power away from Higgins and giving it solidly to Eliza. This does not mean that she is impervious to suffering or that Higgins never has the upper hand, but Rafaeli’s heroine is driven by ambition rather than desperation.
“I Could Have Danced All Night” is finally a triumphant hymn to personal achievement rather than an ode to her trainer. And when the male ensemble threatens to take “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” for themselves, Eliza chases them off and commands the stage again.
Despite these new angles, dramaturg Gregory Kable has helped ensure, though, that Shaw’s content is not absent. These new perspectives are delivered via staging and performance, not through alterations in dialogue. But we cannot ignore the misogyny and sexism of the characters themselves. The integrity of historical context is being maintained while preventing the play itself from being abusive.
Veteran PlayMakers scenic designer McKay Coble presents a murky Edwardian London — Eliza’s world. The flower girl’s purview is always paramount, with Higgins’s library set invading her show rather the other way around. Lighting designer Masha Tsimring works in tandem to create a shadowy atmosphere, and Andrea Hood’s skillfully crafted costumes maintain the reality of the universe rather than distracting from it. Sound designer Anna Warda Alex has created a perfectly balanced sound mix of vocalists and musicians — a rare feat for musical staging.
The musical’s traditional 21-piece orchestra proves unnecessary. Opting for the two-piano arrangement, nimble ivory-ticklers (music director Mark Hartman and associate music director Alex Thompson) leave the audience wanting nothing.
PlayMakers newcomer Mia Pinero delivers an exemplary performance as Eliza Doolittle. She finds perfect balance between the knife-wielding street kid and duchess, while maintaining perfect comedic timing and a flawless soprano performance that nearly parallels Dame Julie’s.
Longtime company member Jeffrey Blair Cornell plays a reprehensible Professor Higgins with interminable energy, opting to steamroll rather than charm Eliza — perfectly casting him as misogynistic gaslighter rather than creepy boyfriend material.
Invaluable PlayMakers trouper Ray Dooley counterbalances Cornell’s Higgins with a charming Colonel Pickering, while a stalwart Julia Gibson is delightful as the exasperated Mrs. Pearce. Jade Arnold continues to show growth as an adorable Freddy Eynsford-Hill, while company mainstay Julie Fishell amplifies the play’s feminist elements as a scolding Mrs. Higgins.
In his PlayMakers debut, Gary Milner is the clear audience favorite as inebriated clown Alfred P. Doolittle. Milner is a true triple-threat whose two rousing songs are worth the ticket price in their own right. These two exemplary production numbers, especially the inventive “With a Little Bit of Luck,” are made all the more stirring by Tracey Bersley’s clever choreography, with noticeable contribution from ensemble member Tristan Parks. The ensemble includes company regulars and some newbies, all of whom strive, usually successfully, to flesh out the social landscape of Edwardian London.
Other companies who wish to revive this show should take special note of Tyne Rafaeli’s fresh take. She has called Shaw’s misogyny on the carpet, rather than condoning it. The adjusted ending is this production’s most surprising and satisfying moment. PlayMakers Repertory Company has fixed My Fair Lady.
SECOND OPINION: April 10th Durham, NC Five Points Star review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: https://thefivepointsstar.com/2017/04/10/loverly-my-fair-lady-at-playmakers/; April 10th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article143808329.html; and March 25th Chapel Hill, NC WCHL/Chapelboro.com interview with director Tyne Rafaeli, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://playmakersrep.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/TYNE-RAFAELI.mp3. (Note: To read the online version of the April 5th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://conta.cc/2oOymHU#my-fair-lady.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents MY FAIR LADY at 7:30 p.m. April 11-14, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 15, 2 p.m. April 16, 7:30 p.m. April 18-22, 2 p.m. April 23, and 7:30 p.m. April 27-29 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15-$57 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel, except $15 general admission ($10 for students with ID) on Community Night (Tuesday, Jan. 31st).
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/show/my-fair-lady/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1250066705118736/.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mxw9lJ-_n7c and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6OkbXeNKMg.
PRC NEWS RELEASE: http://playmakersrep.org/press/playmakers-repertory-company-presents-my-fair-lady/.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 11th. NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 12th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 16th, performances.
NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 15th (for more information, click here).
NOTE 5: The North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussions on “Is Transformation ‘loverly’ or is it not?,” led by Natalie Peacock-Corral, MSW, LCSW, after the show’s 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 29th, performance.
Pygmalion (1913 Vienna and 1914 Broadway play): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/pygmalion-7310 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmalion_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).
George Bernard Shaw (British playwright, 1856-1950): http://www.shawsociety.org.uk/ (The Shaw Society, UK), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/bernard-shaw-69430 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Bernard_Shaw (Wikipedia).
My Fair Lady (1956 Broadway and 1958 West End musical): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/my-fair-lady-6369 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Fair_Lady (Wikipedia).
Script: https://www.scribd.com/doc/32699487/My-Fair-Lady-Script (Scribd.).
Study Guide: http://www.bard.org/my-fair-lady-study-guide (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics, 1918-86): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/alan-jay-lerner-3945 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/C42 (Songwriters Hall of Fame), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Jay_Lerner (Wikipedia).
Frederick Loewe (music, 1901-88): http://www.frederickloewe.org/ (Frederick Loewe Foundation), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/frederick-loewe-5688 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/C43?exhibitId=43 (Songwriters Hall of Fame), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Loewe (Wikipedia).
Tyne Rafaeli (New York City-based British-American director): https://www.tynerafaeli.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/tyne-rafaeli/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/tyne-rafaeli-499887 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1544562/ (Internet Movie Database).
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is a local theater actor, regular crew member, and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. degree in Special Education from East Carolina University. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can also find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt, on Twitter as @dkbritt85, and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.