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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though it seems impossible that you don't know what it's about, here's a thimble fittting synopsis: A street encounter between linguistic expert Professor Henry Higgins and Cockney flower girl Liza Doolittle, prompts her to ask him to teach her to speak proper English so that she can sell flowers inside a shop instead of on the street. Higgins bets his fellow linguist, Colonel Pickering, that he can not only teach her to speak better English but to pass as a Duchess. Liza's spirit chafes under his ignoring her as a human being and eventually there's a blowup which forces Higgins to really appreciate her. As Shaw saw it, this completed her makeover as not just a well-spoken but independent woman; and as audiences (much to his annoyance) saw it, it paved the way for a romantic attachment..
Whether the successful transformation of the "squashed cabbage leaf" into an elegant lady leads to a definitive happy ending depends on which version of the story you're seeing: The My Fair Lady musical adaptation with Liza's fetching the Professor's slippers the equivalent of a kiss to seal the romantic bargain. . .the version of the play that has Liza going off to marry her suitor Freddy Eynsford Hill. . . and Shaw's earliest text with a more ambiguous ending that's open to the viewer's interpretation. It's this early text that director David Grindley has used to reunite three of his actors as well as his designers and dialect coach from his previous revival of another English play, the World War I drama, Journey's End.
There's no doubt that My Fair Lady has eclipsed what Shaw, in his typical discussion play mode, wrote as a commentary on the class system as exacerbated by class-distinguishing accents and not as a fanciful romantic comedy of manners. However, it's unlikely to suffer the fate of Journey's End, namely poor box office performance despite uniformly ecstatic reviews. While it has a serious theme, Pygmalion is not grim and dark but entertaining and full of Shavian wit. My Fair Lady fans will have a " loverly" time seeing how Shaw's text literally shouted out "turn me into a song" to Lerner and Loewe. And when Higgins insists to the end that he treats everybody the same (rudely!), but admits "I've grown accustomed to your voice and appearance" I'll just bet a few bars of Rex Harrison's sprech-singing the famous ditty that line seeded will rush into your ears.
And then there's the cast which is full of surprises. For starters there's Claire Danes, a young film star whose Liza turns out not to be a case of box-office geared stunt casting. Unlike some of the Lizas (like the 49-year-old Mrs. Patrick Campbell for whom Shaw wrote the part and Wendy Hiller of the 1938 film version), Danes is in her twenties. She is a very creditable Liza, both in terms of her accent and character interpretation. Her test run as Higgins' pupil, an appearance at his mother's weekly open house is a marvelous display of her considerable comedic skills.
Jefferson Mays, the cook in Journey's End, is unlike any Henry Higgins you're likely to have seen on stage or screen. He's still brilliant, but more petulant Mama's boy than a charmingly jaded bachelor. His bad manners emphasize Shaw's point that what's eccentric for an upper class, highly educated twit will keep the flower girls of the Edwardian world from achieving a better life. Like Ms. Danes, May is younger (early 40ss). He's also less debonair than the professors to whose mature charms many of us have become accustomed. No wonder his indulgent mother has to remind him to stop fidgeting or grinding his teeth. And yet May does that youthful brashness and uncertainty extremely well and it suits the ambiguous ending with him left alone and uncertain on stage.
Boyd Gaines, the gentle Lieutenant in Journey's End plays Higgins' co-conspirator in the Liza makeover. He's more sensitive and mature and his moving in with Higgins for the duration of the experiment, hints at the possibility that the real pairing here is between two men whose academic passions may well be sublimating their closeted (even to themselves) sexual preferences. The third Journey's End cast member Kieran Campion, is fine as Liza's suitor Freddy Eynsfield Hill even though he doesn't have all that much to do in this very trim script.
What about Liza's father the dustman? Jay O. Sanders is so on the mark as the opportunistic, liquor loving Alfred Doolittle who, as luck would have it, is catapulted into the middle class morality disdained by him and Shaw that you forgive his roaming accent. Not needing any dialect coaching are Helen Carey as Higgins mother and Brenda Wehle as Higgins's very proper and moral housekeeper.
While there's no Ascot or Ball where Liza "could have danced all night," Jonathan Fensom's sets and costumes make for an authentic and classy visual look, beginning with a scene in front of the opera that introduces us to most of the main characters as they seek shelter from a real rainstorm and which most appropriately features music by Shaw's admirer, composer Sir Edgar Elgar. That scene is terrific but it made me a bit nervous that this would be another case of overly atmospheric lighting (as in Journey's End) that would make it difficult to see the actors' faces. My worries proved unfounded for the two other sets (the professor's home and his mother's parlor) slide forward and backward as needed and quite brightly lit.
Curtainup reader and Irish theater scholar Kate Kenon sent me an email after seeing a preview in which she noted that in the libretto of My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner defended his avoidance of Shaw's careful sequel to Pygmalion. She quotes Lerner on the characters and their futures, as saying "I am not certain that Shaw was right." Ms. Kenon went on to praise the Roundabout for aligning themselves with Lerner's feeling that Shaw may have been wrong about his own creation. She finds the ambivalence of the earlier and leaner text used for the current revival as something to be encouraged because i"t brings out discussion." She adds however, that "if Henry does marry Liza, the action would negate one of the fundamental themes of the play— the limited economic choices for women in the early 20th century." I would conclude by passing on her advice to anyone who is in a quandary about the end: "If the play remains problematic, there is consolation in the Shavian ambivalence. It is in recognzing that Shaw was his own Pygmalion, and his play, so headstrong, was his Galatea."
For more about George Bernard Shaw and links to other Shaw plays we've reviewed, see our Shaw Backgrounder.