note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
Miss Eliza Doolittle … Ellen Adair
Professor Henry Higgins … Kevin Ashworth
Colonel Pickering … Ron Brinn
Mr. Afred Doolittle; Taxi Driver … Mark Bourbeau
Mrs. Pearce; Flower Girl … Olivia Doran
Freddy Eynsford-Hill … Max Flisi
Parlormaid; Flower Girl … Brenda Ladoulis
Clara Eynsford-Hill … Audrey Lynn Sylvia
Mrs. Higgins … Renee Miller
Bystander; Constable … Jeffrey B. Phillips
Mrs. Eynsford-Hill … Gwen Sweet
The Longwood Players, in their seventh season but new to me, recently brushed off George Bernard Shaw’s PYGMALION for two weekends at the Cambridge YMCA. The evening was, on the whole, a bread-and-butter triumph, greatly enjoyed by the audience on the night I attended, and sweetened by Ellen Adair as Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl drilled by Professor Henry Higgins on how to speak like a lady.
Some plays can co-exist with their musical adaptations while others are forgotten. KISS ME, KATE and WEST SIDE STORY have yet to eclipse THE TAMING OF THE SHREW and ROMEO AND JULIET, but who does GREEN GROW THE LILACS and LILIOM anymore since OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL took their places, long ago? PYGMALION has suffered a similar fate after inspiring the ever-popular MY FAIR LADY which is too bad for it is remains a witty, thought-provoking battle of the sexes (on the other hand, when did you last see a production of THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER, based on Mr. Shaw’s ARMS AND THE MAN; the studio recording of HER FIRST ROMAN, coming from his CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, only demonstrates why it died a quick death in 1968). MY FAIR LADY may have the hit tunes but PYGMALION has the substance along with an uncertain ending: Eliza, realizing her creator will never see her as his equal, romantic or otherwise, walks out on Higgins to his lofty amusement; in the musical, she returns to him just before the curtain falls (in his famous epilogue in the published script, Mr. Shaw goes to great lengths to insist that Higgins and Eliza do NOT end up, together). Last year, the Vokes Theatre proved with THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE that Mr. Shaw is first and foremost an entertainer albeit a cerebral one --- in that comedy he first had to create a gripping melodrama in order to send up the genre; in PYGMALIAN, he had to turn feminist: his Eliza is an appealing combination of “good girl”, natural-born lady and street smarts --- a paragon of New Woman-hood for Higgins to rail against and bully: he never sees the rose on his doorstep, only the manure from which it has grown.
There was some tinkering in the Longwood production. I hadn’t read PYGMALION since college days but remembered that Eliza’s transformation all takes place between the acts; here, someone added elocution scenes cobbled from the musical right down to the “rain in Spain”, and Eliza’s social triumph (originally, during intermission) had Eliza onstage in a spotlight, hearing voices piped in through the sound system. Such additions may have given Ms. Adair more to do but went against the conventions of Mr. Shaw’s day (i.e. Edwardian drawing room versus cinematic montage and expressionism) and there was a jaw-dropping moment when Eliza and Mrs. Pierce shouted new dialogue from offstage while the former was being stripped and scrubbed down that unfortunately left Higgins and Pickering onstage counting the thickening minutes.
Curiously, there seems to be two endings to PYGMALIAN. In an online version of the script, it closes, thus:
MRS. HIGGINS. The carriage is waiting, Eliza. Are you ready?
LIZA. Quite. Is the Professor coming?
MRS. HIGGINS. Certainly not. He can’t behave himself in church. He makes remarks out loud all the time on the clergyman's pronunciation.
LIZA. Then I shall not see you again, Professor. Good bye. [She goes to the door].
MRS. HIGGINS [coming to Higgins] Good-bye, dear.
HIGGINS. Good-bye, mother. [He is about to kiss her, when he recollects something]. Oh, by the way, Eliza, order a ham and a Stilton cheese, will you? And buy me a pair of reindeer gloves, number eights, and a tie to match that new suit of mine, at Eale & Binman's. You can choose the color. [His cheerful, careless, vigorous voice shows that he is incorrigible].
LIZA [disdainfully] Buy them yourself. [She sweeps out].
MRS. HIGGINS. I'm afraid you’ve spoiled that girl, Henry. But never mind, dear: I'll buy you the tie and gloves.
HIGGINS [sunnily] Oh, don’t bother. She'll buy ‘em all right enough. Good-bye.
They kiss. Mrs. Higgins runs out. Higgins, left alone, rattles his cash in his pocket; chuckles; and disports himself in a highly self-satisfied manner.
The Longwood production closes with the ending that I remember, that of Eliza calmly walking out on Higgins as he laughs at the thought of her marrying Freddy.
Mr. Shaw states that Higgins “is so entirely frank and void of malice that he remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments”; despite a flopping, anachronistic hairstyle, Kevin Ashworth was likeable indeed as a droll, boulevard Higgins, lending credibility to Higgin’s knack for twisting the world around his finger and getting away with it. Ron Britton seemed to be waiting for the real Colonel Pickering to come along, but Mark Bourbeau bounced the evening into robust life as the rascally Doolittle. Renee Taylor was nicely starched as Mrs. Higgins yet proving, at heart, to be a mother hawk towards her impossible son.
But the evening belonged to its Eliza, Ellen Adair, who has the frail beauty that speaks of Dickensian workhouses and Doré’s London engravings. Having recently graduated from Boston University, Ms. Adair stepping onstage in PYGMALION was equivalent to Eliza going into society; just as the flower girl looks to her professor for guidance and shaping so was Ms. Adair dependent upon her director. Happily, Marc S. Miller lent a relaxed, fatherly hand that gave both Ms. Adair and Eliza a growing confidence and maturity that ended in a photo finish (what can be more enchanting in the theatre than to watch a newcomer slowly but surely take the stage?). Eliza’s Cockney side, complete with a dangling lock of hair a la Boy George, was an amusing turn that never became coarse or brazen (a priceless moment: while the others discussed her future, Ms. Adair sat to one side, preoccupied with sucking chocolate off her teeth, like a cat remembering the taste of cream) and she was hilariously at sixes and sevens at Mrs. Higgin's soiree. However, Ms. Adair was at her best as the counterfeit lady who turns out to be the genuine article by displaying an innate decency, a clear eye and a continuing lack of pretension, a woman who walks out amused rather than angry, knowing Higgins is not her equal rather than the other way around. PYGMALION was an impressive start to a new career and I hope Ms. Adair will remain in the area, at least, for awhile --- the winters here can be harsh, but lovely things can grow during spring and summer.