The basis for the much beloved, happily-ever-after musical My Fair Lady, George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion takes a much firmer tack on questions of class distinctions and female independence. Those themes, so dear to Shaw’s progressive heart, end up rather charmingly watered down in the 1964 Audrey Hepburn film version.
They come through crisply in the Pasadena Playhouse’s production, directed by Jessica Kubzansky with a post-modern design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz that shakes off the stodgy visual trappings of the play’s Edwardian setting. But this attempt to distill the play to its crystalline elements doesn’t wholly succeed. Despite a luminous performance from Paige Lindsey White, the production as a whole somehow adds up to less than the sum of its considerable parts.
That is perhaps due to the tepid chemistry between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins (Bruce Turk), a one-percenter phonetics professor who bets that he can pass off a gutter-dwelling flower girl as a duchess by teaching her to speak properly, thus deceiving the crustiest of the upper crust. The hubris of that initial gamble drives the play, catapulting Eliza into high society while also keeping her pinned down by Higgins’ tutelage and aggressive superiority.
Turk’s performance makes for a slow burn. His Higgins, all sloping, diffident limbs, is more a negligent eccentric than the bully who refers to Eliza on their first meeting as “this baggage.” (The one false note in Shaw’s script comes near the end, when Eliza declares that she signed on for language lessons not for promises of chocolates and taxis but because “we were pleasant together.”) In earlier scenes, his retiring manner dampens the forcefulness of his words, making for insults that seem driven by more malice than we see mustered. Turk relaxes into the role as the evening wears on, and he and White find their rhythm by the last act. Kubzansky lets Turk linger onstage afterward, with a final moment that makes for an intriguing conclusion.
As Eliza, White gives an utterly sincere performance that makes even minor moments unexpectedly stirring. For example, in her expression of joy at bathing like a fine lady, it’s hard not to hear Shaw’s implicit indictment of wealth inequality. With her natural radiance tamped down in the early scenes, White emerges all the more regal following her transformation. Her repudiation of Higgins, when it comes, feels like a triumph.
As the professor’s comrade in arms, Colonel Pickering, Stan Egi is appropriately chivalrous (though not particularly elderly), and Time Winters offers some of the evening’s best comedic moments as Alfred P. Doolittle. Ellen Crawford is especially good as the forbearing housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. To this untrained Yankee ear, Nike Doukas’ dialect coaching sounds spot on, though the acoustics made the accents initially difficult to hear.
The production makes inventive use of textual projections, with streams of dialogue used to transition between scenes and one especially inventive effect I won’t spoil here. On opening night, the staging hadn’t yet gelled into all it could be. Yet with so many elements going for it, I remain hopeful.
Pygmalion, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; through April 12. (626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org.
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