“My Fair Lady,” the 1950s musical crafted from George Bernard Shaw’s 1916 play “Pygmalion,” is a fluffy, frilly, funny, flighty and not totally frivolous mashup of “Cinderella” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” A man brings a princess to life, only to have his creation turn against him.
Directed and choreographed by Jon Douglas Rake, the Tacoma Musical Playhouse production of “My Fair Lady,” which runs through June 10, is marked by great performances by its lead actors and spectacular costumes, staging and dance.
The story is about a scholar of English dialects, Henry Higgins (Jonathan Bill), who, on a bet with Colonel Pickering (Gary Chambers), teaches underclass London flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Leischen Moore) proper grammar, decorum and speech pronunciation in order to pass her off as a duchess at a royal ball. The multifaceted storyline weaves together themes of sexism, classism and the power of language to both limit and liberate.
Moore is brilliant in the starring role of Eliza, the impoverished, ignorant and strong-willed flower girl who is made into a “duchess” before she rebels and becomes an independent woman. A voice teacher by trade, Moore knows her stuff and admirably carries the audience along the arch of Eliza’s transformation by the power of a sweet, well-trained and emotively expressive singing voice.
Bill, whose rustic-yet-velvety tones are reminiscent of those of a lounge singer (think Frank Sinatra), is a stalwart counterpoint to Moore. The supporting cast also brings in its own share of vocal firepower to the mix. Chambers, a versatile actor — playing everything from slapstick comedy to serious musical roles — is continually steady and funny as the buffer in the contest of wills that ensues between Higgins and Eliza.
Colin Briskey, who plays the love-smitten Freddy Eynsford-Hill, is always impressive with his rich tenor voice. Marion Reed, in the role of Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ chief of the household staff, stands out with a sonic power that, one suspects, could blow everyone else out of the water if she so chose. Mrs. Higgins, the professor’s mother, is very sympathetically played by Diane Bozzo. Andrew Fry, a rather busy local actor, provides much of the comic relief as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s ne’er do well father.
Bruce Haasl’s detailed scenic designs and Jocelyne Fowler’s always dazzling costumes go a long way in making the TMP production a visual spectacle to match all of the verbal fireworks that enliven the stage. An ensemble cast fills out the crowd scenes and big dance sequences. Members of the ensemble lend their voices when volume levels need to be raised to the roof.
All of the music and the costumes and the bedazzlement serve to embellish Shaw’s original script, like a rich, ornate cover on a scriptural text. What could have been a hollow rags-to-riches story is given depth by an examination of Eliza after the triumph of the grand ball. She has been made into a duchess and Higgins’ experiment is now done. Eliza is suddenly faced with an existential crisis out of which she emerges as a fully fleshed human being.
Pygmalion, the namesake of the original script, was a king of Cyprus and a sculptor who made a statue of a woman so beautiful that he fell in love with her. The goddess Aphrodite brought the statue to life and Pygmalion married her. Shaw played with this theme of the life-giver and his created woman with Higgins and Eliza. When she is first encountered, Eliza, from Higgins’ point of view, is raw, human clay. (He calls her things like “crushed cabbage leaves,” “baggage,” and “insect.”) Many of her utterances are rustic exclamations (“garm!”) or inarticulate sounds. It is as if she feels raw, undefined sensations, but not specific emotions. Her first song, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” expresses her desires, which amount to warmth, comfort and companionship. She certainly has no desire to join the upper classes and so, gets more than she bargained for when Higgins decides to remake her into a person after his own image. The drama is illustrative of the consciousness-raising power of speech and vocabulary. The greater one’s range of language, the more expressive one can be. Self-expression is freedom. One questions, however, whether something is not also lost as more and more of life is viewed through the structural framework of language. Notions that derive from mystical traditions seem to suggest that letting go of language and definitions is part of being able to open up to even higher levels of consciousness. But such concerns did not seem to be part of Shaw’s field of vision when he wrote the play.
For Higgins, the gift of language is life-giving, the key to an appreciation of higher things: Shakespeare, science, philosophy and classical music. Once acquired, Eliza cannot forget the language that she has learned, but is seems to have the effect of placing limits on her freedom instead of granting her greater freedom. Instead of working in a shop, she is now offered nothing but the bondage of marriage (which at the time amounted to a woman’s being owned by her husband.) In the end, she exerts her will and leaves Higgins to strike out on her own.
“My Fair Lady,” the musical version of the script, however, makes the story somewhat confused by insinuating a growing love interest between Higgins and Eliza. “I Could Have Danced All Night,” for example, expresses Eliza’s giddiness at having experienced a joyful spell of dancing with Higgins. Higgins’ song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” also seems to suggest that, despite his assertions to the contrary, he is in love with Eliza. In the same song, he summons revenge fantasies against Eliza, bouncing back and forth between a sense of loss and feelings of loathing, which will be familiar to anyone who has experienced a breakup with someone truly loved.
As a confirmed bachelor, Higgins also expresses views of women that I suspect were found ridiculous even when first written, but especially now. Nevertheless, I had a sense that most of the women in the audience bristled during songs like “A Hymn to Him,” in which Higgins poses the question, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”
This TMP production is reportedly already a big success, with a number of sellout performances in advance. The production reaches its high tide near the end of the first act with a string of its best loved musical numbers like “The Rain in Spain,” in which Eliza makes her breakthrough and begins to speak with beautiful language. Following that is the delightful “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which is in turn followed by the art noveau-styled “Ascot Gavotte.” And then comes Freddy’s solo performance of “On the Street Where You Live.” (These days poor Freddy might be considered a stalker.)
On the down side, Alfred Doolittle’s big songs “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which are a depiction of the “undeserving poor” transformed into the “undeserving rich,” seem silly and unnecessary. Further, the 1950s musical styling, marked with tempo changes within a song — which reflect a character shifting moods or debating with himself — also make the whole shebang feel a little dated.
All in all, however, this is a good, strong piece of musical theater that fans of the art form need to be conversant with. Once heard, many of these songs will become part of you for the rest of your life. They’ve been running through my head for years.
Tacoma Musical Playhouse is located at 7116 6th Ave. For more information on show schedules and ticketing prices, call (253) 565-6867 or visit www.tmp.org.