One of the most prolific playwrights of the 20th Century and the only person to win both a Nobel Prize for Literature as well as an Oscar Award, George Bernard Shaw is a name known to the theatre almost as well as Shakespeare. A journalist by trade and a passionate activist, Shaw’s works are trademarked by their biting wit and deep social themes, specifically addressing the oft exploited working class.
His most famous and frequently produced work, "Pygmalion," inspired many successful runs and one of the most successful musicals to come to Broadway during its heyday in the 1950’s and ’60s in "My Fair Lady."
Though the script, in its original form, is much more pessimistic and toned down than the musical most people are probably familiar with, the same delightful characters, sharp comedy and acquainted storyline are all present and available to San Diego audiences through Feb. 17 on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Puffed with pride and a detailed understanding of language, Professor Henry Higgins (Robert Sean Leonard) sets out to win a bet, agreed to by colleague Colonel Pickering (Paxton Whitehead), that the key to upward mobility in society is founded in one’s ability to speak and act with grace and manner. To prove his point he takes a common flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Charlotte Parry), and begins his work to transform this "common gutter trash" into an acceptable lady.
Along the way hilarity, love and overt social themes occur. This is classic and quintessential Shaw in very good form.
The ensemble selected for this 100th Anniversary staging is really quite impressive. Of note is Parry’s performance that walks a fine line between campy and convincing. Parry managed to create a delicious contrast between the stuffy upper crust and her more low-class roots.
Another standout performance was Don Sparks as Mr. Doolittle, Eliza’s father. His half-hearted concern for his daughter, second only to his total concern for himself, was vulgar, reprehensible, and utterly charming. He did well in creating a character you love to hate, and hate to love.
The surprise for me came in Robert Sean Leonard’s Higgins. As a self-professed man-child who is far more concerned with language than love and phonetics than feelings, Leonard handled Higgins’ character with ease at times letting the reins go maybe a little too much. Maybe it was a stroke of genius that his character seemed disinterested in much of what was unfolding before him but to me it came across as somewhat flat.
Surrounded by characters of such depth, most of all his own mother (Mrs. Higgins played beautifully by Kandis Chappell), the only thing that stood out about his performance was his noticeable frustration following a slight scene change mishap which he addressed, causing him to break character.
A thoroughly strong remaining cast coupled with a top to bottom top-notch performance makes this staging of Shaw’s "Pygmalion" one to catch. Alexander Dodge managed to create a chameleon in his set design, cleverly and quickly morphing from a West End London street scene to Higgins’ laboratory to Mrs. Higgins’ Drawing Room.
Robert Morgan’s costume design was spot on and allowed for some necessary quick changes while Philip Rosenberg’s lighting design, from the opening’s dramatic lightening to the final fade, added quality highlights and accents to the events unfolding on stage. As the resident voice and dialect coach, Jan Gist undoubtedly had high expectations placed on her in finding so many varying dialects but still managed to deliver in true Pygmalion style.
Charged with directing a play so famous its name has been tapped to describe a certain sociological phenomenon, Old Globe vet Nicholas Martin skillfully helmed this ship.
Filled with themes that, a century later, continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, George Bernard Shaw’s classic about social mobility and women’s independence is still finding new fans and audiences and will undoubtedly find reinventions for the next 100 years.