In what can be seen as a departure from its more usual fare, Off-Broadstreet Theater is presenting a classic, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Completed in 1912, it was Shaw’s 28th play (he wrote more than 50). A popular play, it became even better known in 1938, when a movie version was produced. And, of course, in 1956 when it became the basis of “My Fair Lady,” a musical with a score by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe that was enormously successful (it ran for six years), its fame spread even farther. In 1964 a film version of “My Fair Lady” with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn added yet another star to its luster.
Off-Broadstreet has chosen to treat the script with respect and is presenting a production that does not indulge in gratuitous fancy. This means the audience can hear the text, which is, after all, on a much higher level than the usual popular play. As most know, Henry Higgins, a single-minded professor of phonetics, wagers that he can transform Eliza Doolittle, a lower-class flower girl, into a lady who can pass muster in the most upper-crust circles.
Higgins is successful in his attempts to transform Eliza’s speech, but he can’t touch her spirit — which is probably a good thing, since Higgins is totally without empathy, only concerned to show his success by making it possible for Eliza to be accepted as a member of the higher classes. A further assault on class distinctions is provided by Eliza’s father, who complains of being forced to become a member of the middle class simply because, through no fault of his own, he became a rich man. He was much happier as a member of the undeserving poor.
“Pygmalion” requires a cast of nine. Tess Ammerman — a veteran of several recent OBT productions, including “Peg O’ My Heart,” “There’s a Burglar in My Bed,” “The Wildest,” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” — plays Eliza Doolittle. The role requires some fancy footwork to deal with the accents, and she handles her part with skill. Henry Higgins is played by Jonathan Wierzbicki, who has appeared at OBT in “Desperate Affection,” off-Broadway, and local New Jersey stages. He conveys with total clarity Higgins’s lack of connection with other people.
Kathy Garofano, who plays the Higgins’ housekeeper, returns to OBT. She served as the director for “Moon over the Brewery” and was on stage for “The Game’s Afoot,” “Peg O’ My Heart,” and “Broadway Bound.” The prize for the richest OBT past should probably go to Curtis Kaine, who takes on Colonel Pickering, also a language expert. This is Kaine’s 19th production with the company, where he was recently seen as Monsieur Orgon in “The Game of Love and Chance.” He is also proud of his stint as Santa Claus at Macy’s in New York City.
Doug Kline does a stellar job as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father. He too has a rich OBT past, most recently appearing as Ben in “Broadway Bound.” He has also worked locally with Boheme Opera and Actors’ Net. Mrs. Higgins is played by Elaine Wallace, another OBT veteran with 40 years of work in professional, regional repertory, and community theaters.
Jennifer Orr, who plays Mrs. Eynsford Hill, is one of the three newcomers to OBT, though her past experience includes work with St. Bart’s Players, Chatham Players, Villagers, and Actors’ Net. The Eynsford Hill daughter, a minor role, is played by Caitlin Sprang, a sophomore at Rider University majoring in musical theater. Freddy Eynsford Hill is played by Benj Nelson, in his regional theater debut, though he played this role as a sophomore in high school at Hopewell Valley Central. He is a graduate of the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.
The level of the production is high, and it certainly speaks well for the company that it can carry off with such apparent ease a work that seem to be far removed from its usual fare. Bob Thick has once again acted as both director and designer. The direction, no surprise, was both clear and unfussy, and it is likely that even those who are not familiar with “Pygmalion” would have no trouble following what was going on on stage, no matter how complicated things may have been. The costumes were by Rittzzy Costumes and did their job without calling attention to themselves.
Pygmalion, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, May 3, Friday and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Desserts served an hour before show. $27 to $31.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.