BoHo & Stage Left’s PYGMALION Gives Eliza Her Independence
As any new work goes through its evolution to fruition, the playwright and the marketplace can dictate many factors that ultimately impact the final product. A perfect example of this is the classic George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which is getting its 100 year anniversary mounting as a co-production between Bohemian Ensemble (one of my personal favorite theater companies) and Stage Left. When Shaw’s play went from page to stage, the artistic and commercial influences over the work forced the writer to make changes he was never comfortable with. These changes, which are now part of the fabric of the what we have come to know through the film and musical versions, end up being much different characters that we are introduced to in this current production.
So in many ways BoHo and Stage Left had a blank slate to work with to reintroduce the iconic characters of Henry Higgins (Steve O’connell), Eliza Doolittle (Mouzam Makkar) and Colonel Pickering (Sandy Elias) in a very organic way. With a very able cast the evening gets off to a strong start as director Vance Smith allows his actors to find their own rhythm and momentum. Much is familiar, as the newer incarnations’ dialogue and song lyrics are taking verbatim from this script. Humor abounds as Higgins and Pickering place a bet to turn a cockney street urchin into a proper lady. In the process of Eliza’s transformation we meet all the familiar characters including Higgins servant Mrs. Pierce (Stephanie Sullivan), the ingénue Freddie (Charles Riffenburg) and Mother Higgins (the brilliant Lisa Herceg, who steals each scene she is in).
All is goes along swimmingly as a proper telling of the original intentions of Shaw until the unconscionable happens; Steve O’Connell begins whistling the classic standard “On The Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. All of the notions of celebrating the original version went out the window and so did any hope of these actors making the characters their own.
From that point on, the musical became front and center and the comparisons could not be helped to be thrust upon this co-production. Thus comes to fruition the main issue that subsequent versions attempted to fix; that being in the original Pygmalion, the characters are quite underdeveloped compared to the film and musical My Fair Lady (and that is what I will compare it to rather than the film of Pygmalion since the powers that be would like us to be reminded of what most consider the perfect musical). In this version, the transformation of Eliza happens almost instantaneously whereas in the musical, we get much more in depth of her difficult process and the utter elation when “The Rain In Spain” is uttered for the first time correctly. Also, poor Freddie’s character is reduced to a laughing fit; and gone is the utter fun seeing Eliza in public (Ascot Gavotte). As the second acts gets in gear, it happens again; another whistling episode of another My Fair Lady tune (Get Me To The Church On Time). Really?
Even with that major faux pas, the cast saves the day. No more so than Ms. Makkar who has an original and fresh take on Eliza. She is at all times fully invested in her character and takes full advantage of the much stronger Eliza that Shaw initially intended. Gone is the return of Ms. Dolittle at the end, instead leaving Higgins to grovel in his own shovanism. Mr. O’Connell competently coveys a Higgins on the precipice of change but, his old ways wins out. Pygmalion does remind us of the class system and how women were viewed and treated. This production has a cast that is worthy to give Shaw his due and present the original version, and I’m not whistling Dixie.
Pygmalion runs through February 10, 2013 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL. For tickets please visit www,bohotheatre.com or www.stagelefttheatre.com or call 773-975-8150; Performances are Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission. For calendar information please visit www.theatreinchicago.com