Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Pygmalion"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"


entire contents copyright 2009 by Tony Annicone

"Pygmalion"

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

The third show of The Players 100th season is George Bernard Shaw's classic 1914 play "Pygmalion" which is based on a Greek myth of the same name. Pygmalion is a brilliantly witty reworking of the classical tale of the sculptor who falls in love with his perfect female statue, it is also a barbed attack on the British class system and a statement of Shaw's feminist views. It is set in Spring, 1916 and tells the story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics who is based on phonetician Henry Sweet, who makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can successfully pass off a Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, as a refined society lady by teaching her how to speak with an upper class accent and training her in etiquette. He thinks he can turn her into a duchess at ease in polite society but the one thing he overlooks is that his "creation" has a mind of her own. During this six month process, Higgins and Doolittle grow close, but she ultimately rejects his domineering ways and declares she will marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young, poor, gentleman. Her conniving heavy drinking father and his exasperated mother are thrown into the mix as is his disapproving maid who frowns at his scandalous swearing in front of the girl. Also the show is narrated by an actor playing Shaw, himself who helps set up the scenes in the five act play which has been cut down to three swiftly moving acts. The play is familiar in itself and through "My Fair Lady". It is impossible to watch it without silently humming a coda to so many of Shaw's lines. The musical lyricism of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is inescapably wedded to the original play. Director Alma Fontana casts all 20 performers wonderfully especially the leading players, making this 1914 script seem fresh and new again with her cast being rewarded with a standing ovation at the close of the evening with its mixture of comic ecstasy and tragic pain. What will the new creation due with her life after her transformation is what Higgins neglected to think about in his male chauvinistic way.

Alma is aided in her task by producer and stage manager Lydia Matteson and her crew that changes the sets with ease. The main sets designed by Alma and built by Michael Girard are lovely and include Higgins laboratory and Mrs. Higgins drawing room. But it is the costumes by Judy Bowden that are breathtaking including all of Eliza's gown especially her ball gown and Mrs. Eynsford-Hill's bright red dress. The hats are by Ann Bruno. The wonderful lighting is by Ruth Fagan.Shaw's views on feminism are not looked upon favorably by current day audiences by lines like "Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you incarnate insult to the English language: I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba" and the final insult of calling her a slut when she explains that every young girl wants to be loved. Veteran actor David Crossley tackles the role of Higgins, putting his own stamp on this interpretation. Higgins can be tyrannical at times but David brings out an irrepressible overgrown schoolboy by jingling change in his pocket. All his scenes with Pickering, Eliza and his mother are outstanding and the massive amount of dialogue which he utters is, too. Higgins enjoys playing god but he receives his comeuppance as Eliza leaves him proclaiming she will marry Freddy not as the musical implies a romantic future between her and Henry. Every bit David's equal is Kathy Oliverio as Eliza who must make the audience believe in her transition from Cockney flower girl to society woman in a very short amount of time. Kathy shows her to be a tough, working class girl who enters into her pact with Higgins for her own economic advantage. One of the most hilarious scenes is when Eliza makes small talk at Mrs. Higgins home for the first time and talks about her aunt being bumped off, using the scandalous word bloody while describing it. Kathy gives Eliza more strength when she leaves Henry for good as she proclaims that she will now become a phonetics teacher, giving away all of his secret methods while doing so. Both leads excel in their respective roles giving the show a strong foundation for the supporting performers to match their expertise. Bravo! (The five week rehearsal period was cut down to three weeks due to the many snow and ice storms this year but the performers are true troupers with the enormous amount of dialogue they had to learn in such a short rehearsal period.)

Stephen Kay captures the humanity of the Colonel while combining it with complicity in Higgins schemes. He moves from director of the previous show to an actor worth his mettle in this one. Stephen also conveys Pickering's true feelings for the girl in the last scene as he begs her to return to them at Wimpole Street. Trisha McManus shines as Mrs. Higgins who exclaims dismay when Henry shows up at her at-home day and her utter contempt for his ill treatment of Eliza when she runs off to Mrs. Higgins home after the Embassy Ball. Trish radiates a wonderful patrician anger at the folly of the male sex. (Her daughter, Michaela who is a professional actress on Law and Order:SVU was in the audience on opening night.) Mrs. Higgins reprimanding Henry leaves him with bulging eyes and mouth agog. Veteran actress Joan Dillenback portrays Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. She makes this woman who only appears in one scene memorable as she imparts her words of wisdom with imperious intensity, putting her employer in his place. David Adams Murphy who makes his RI debut in this show, is an inspired Alfred P. Doolittle. He is excellent in both of Doolittle's incarnations, as the earthy heavy drinking dustman who sells his daughter for five pounds and as the wealthy lecturer on the evils of middle-class morality who is forced to marry Eliza's sixth stepmother as a new member of that class. Another wonderful performer is Dennis Bouchard who plays the naive young man, Freddy Eynsford-Hill who is infatuated with Eliza's beauty and wit. His bossy, bitchy younger sister, Clara is well played by Sarah Pothier who constantly yells at Freddy to get them a taxi in the opening scene and who laughs at Eliza's small talk, loving to use the new expression bloody over and over again. Their mother is beautifully played by Carole Collins who shows how she wants to bring them up to enter a better class of people. The embassy scene shows how haughty the upper classes are. A hilarious performance as the annoying Hungarian pupil, Nepommuck, who explains to Higgins how he is a better teacher than he is, is played by Richard Nardella complete with handlebar moustache and goatee. Two comical cops are played by Manuel Bairos and Bob Frederiksen. The person who holds this show together is the narrator, Ted Gavriluk who introduces himself to the audience as GB Shaw, describing what actions are taking place and where the performers are heading to next. But the joy of the eveing is that a great play has been successfully performed, reminding us that Shaw's intellectual vitality masked a real sense of life's comedy and pain. So for an excellent rendition of this old chestnut of a show, be sure to catch "Pygmalion" at The Players before time runs out. To join this theatre club for its 100th anniversary season call Lydia at 273-0590.

"Pygmalion" (24 January - 1 February)
THE PLAYERS
Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit Street, PROVIDENCE RI
1(401)273-0590

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