|Sign up for our FREE weekly newsletter|
Buy an Ad
By Robert Delaney
A phonetics professor transforms a poor Cockney flower girl into a gracious and well-spoken lady in George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," this year's non- Shakespeare play being offered as part of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson.
If that plot line sounds familiar, it is because "Pygmalion" is the straight play that was so successfully turned into Lerner & Lowe's well-loved musical "My Fair Lady" - which became not only a huge stage hit, but also an Oscar-winning motion picture.
But lest anyone be wondering whether it could possibly be worth driving all the way out to Jackson to see "Pygmalion," when seeing the musical again is just a Netflix request away, let me assure you it is indeed worth it.
That might be true with any good cast, but this production has Joseph Wycoff portraying the irascible phonetics professor, Henry Higgins, and Wycoff gives a truly memorable performance. And yes, I'm ranking him right up there with Rex Harrison in the musical or Leslie Howard in the 1938 movie version of "Pygmalion."
One hundred years after the play first opened in London, Wycoff plays the role as if it were written just for him.
And Stacy Stoltz gives us a delightful performance as Eliza Doolittle, the "crushed cabbage leaf" from Covent Garden - then London's farmers' market area - whose desire to improve her speech just enough to get a job in a shop give Higgins the chance to lead her through a total transformation.
Stoltz, a Garden City native who studied acting at Wayne State University, is fully believable at all stages in the process.
And other fine actors associated with this year's festival round out the cast, most notably David Turrentine as Col. Pickering, the other language expert who challenges Higgins' boast about being able to transform Eliza with a bet that he can't; Alan Ball as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's n'er-do-well father; Janet Haley as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins' straight-laced housekeeper; and Sally Pesetsky as Mrs. Higgins, the professor's mother.
This outstanding production is a triumph for the entire cast and for director Janice L. Blixt, who is artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival and also directs this year's production of Shakespeare's "Richard III."
Seeing "Pygmalion" performed on the stage not only lets us see the original work from which "My Fair Lady" sprang, but also lets us hear more of Shaw's rich dialogue than comes through in the musical.
The experience makes possible a fuller appreciation of the context in which the play was written - as Britain entered a new age of political and social transformation, wrestling with the rigidity of its class structure just before the impact of Modernism in art and the shock of the First World War were about to be felt.
We also get a stronger dose of Shaw's sometimes peculiar perspective on issues such as male-female relations, which were softened somewhat for both the 1938 movie and the musical versions. The eccentric Irish playwright was an undoubted master with words, but also a genuinely odd character in many ways.
Melanie Schuessler's costumes for the production are beautiful, but I must admit to a lack of enthusiasm for Jeromy Hopgood's scenic design, inspired by the coincidence of 1912 being the same year that Pablo Picasso painted his "Guitars." It just doesn't say Edwardian London to me in any way, shape or form.
As I mentioned in last week's reviews of "Richard III" and "Love's Labour's Lost," you can get to the Jackson Community College campus, where all these plays are presented, in approximately an hour-and-a-half from Metro Detroit. And, in case you missed it, I will repeat my recommendation of the Bone Island Grill, a fun place to eat in Vandercook Lake, not far from the campus, and of the Jackson Coffee Co., a pleasant coffee house in downtown Jackson.
SHOW DETAILS: "Pygmalion" continues through Aug. 10, "Love's Labour's Lost" continues through Aug. 11, and "Richard III" continues through Aug. 12 in the Baughman Theatre at Jackson Community College's Potter Center. For performance and ticket information, go to www.michiganshakespearefestival.com or call 517-998-3673.
Reprinted with permission of the New Monitor, July 26, 2012
Click here to comment on this review