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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 17, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `Pygmalion’
Remember "Pygmalion"? It’s "My Fair lady"
without the Ascot Gavotte. If you share the English-speaking world’s
fondness for George Bernard Shaw’s clever and witty version of Greek
mythology, you will admit that his most adored comedy more than holds
its own even without Lerner and Loewe’s "loverly" score.
To state it briefly, the richness of the score and the faithfulness
to their source has made it impossible not to miss the tunes even
in a terrific production of the play. It’s hard for me to believe,
but I haven’t seen George Bernard Shaw’s chestnut since a Roundabout
Theater production in 1991. Before that, the only production I’d seen
was on Broadway in 1987 (and that unfortunately served primarily as
a self-aggrandizing showcase for Peter O’Toole). As for this new production,
as directed by Bonnie J. Monte for the Shakespeare Theater of New
Jersey, it is easily the best I’ve ever seen.
Beerbohm Tree, the distinguished actor who had the honor of portraying
Professor Henry Higgins in the 1914 London premiere (No, I wasn’t
there) once confessed to the audience at the opening night curtain
call that "the author had been so upset by the loud and frequent
applause that he couldn’t stand it any longer and fled in disgust."
I suspect if Shaw were still alive to see his cherished classic, he
would be just as aghast at the loud and frequent applause that acknowledged
the excellence of individual players and scenes in Madison. All of
it deserved, I may add.
Under the nearly perfect conditions provided by Monte’s formidable
company we are able to say that the work’s inexhaustible charm has
been duly captured. What with a real honest to goodness curtain (you
don’t see them part very often these day) to reveal designer Charles
W. Wittreich Jr.’s three handsome settings, all enhanced by Steven
Rosen’s lighting, I found myself having a wonderful time. The casting
is not only nearly perfect, but also enviably suggestive of what fun
these artful Shavians seem to be having.
Paul Niebanck, whose performances over the past six seasons at the
Shakespeare Theater has been consistently impressive, is a revelation
as the emotionally remote, splendidly disagreeable Henry Higgins.
Projecting no less a character of duplicitous, yet equally crafty,
objectivity is Jim Mohr, as Alfred Doolittle. Watching Mohr’s rise
from "one of the undeserving poor" into a member of "middle
class morality," is not only one of the principal joys of the
play but of the season.
No less a chip off Doolittle’s block is Victoria Mack, as Eliza. Mack
stakes a convincing neo-feminist claim on the flower girl, who is
transformed as much by her own will and determination as by Higgins’
heartlessly persevering linguistic instructions, into a faux English
duchess. In the process of achieving this, Mack cannily wins our admiration
and our hearts. And she looks "loverly" in costumer Karen
A. Ledger’s Victorian fashions, notably a crimson ball gown.
Of particular pleasure is the restraint that Mack embraces in the
opening Convent Garden scene in which she is obliged (by Shaw) to
ham up the wailing. Mrs. Higgins’ "at home" reception provides
Mack with the truest frame for displaying her comedic resources as
well as Eliza’s blooming charm.
The supporting players, who are called upon to exemplify the superficiality
of class distinctions, are in fine form. Peggy Scott is delightful
as the no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Pierce. Joseph Costa as Colonel
Pickering and Elizabeth Shepherd as Mrs. Higgins offer pleasant reminders
that human relationship is what Shaw is writing about.
Over the years, beginning with Mrs. Patrick Campbell in 1914, and
continuing through the subsequent revivals with Lynn Fontanne, Frieda
Inescort, Ruth Chatterton, and Gertrude Lawrence, not to mention Wendy
Hiller and Leslie Howard in the exemplary 1933 film version, the critics
have carped about the mature ages of the actresses who played Eliza.
It’s "not bloody likely" they will be carping when they see
this beguiling and radiant young Eliza.
— Simon Saltzman
University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $23 to $43.
To Sunday, September 28.
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