With a nod to the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Pygmalion, the Old Globe Theatre is staging George Bernard Shaw’s rarely produced, often bitingly funny commentary on the classes. Brimming with Shaw’s wit and irony, Pygmalion also gave the world two beloved characters: speech professor Henry Higgins and Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. If you’ve never seen Pygmalion (on stage or the 1938 film), you certainly know the beloved Lerner & Loewe musical version, My Fair Lady, the staging and subsequent filming of which proved to be the crown jewel in Rex Harrison’s career.
For this production, the Globe has enlisted a stellar team, beginning with newly named Globe associate artist Nicholas Martin, who directs. Fellow associate artists Kandis Chappell, Paxton Whitehead, Don Sparks and Deborah Taylor stalwartly support Robert Sean Leonard in the role of Higgins and Charlotte Parry as Eliza.
Though the play’s most memorable lines are well-known to My Fair Lady devotees, and laughter comes easily as a result (particularly when Sparks, as Alfie Doolittle, bellows across the stage), there’s a darker tone to this Pygmalion that possibly the opening nighters didn’t perceive. Leonard’s Higgins is glib and appropriately superior, but he seems preoccupied, even brooding at times (as when he climbs up the winding staircase to an organ and presses its breathy keys). As Eliza, Parry reminds us that in Shaw’s telling of the story (as opposed to the sunnier musical version), this girl from the lower class is profoundly unhappy with her lot, and with herself, practically up to and including the very sobering ending.
So ingrained in our minds is My Fair Lady that we miss not seeing Eliza taking her English lessons from Higgins, and more absent still is any particular scene that suggests a budding affection (or perhaps more) between professor and student. But this was the play Shaw wrote, and his attitude was decidedly unsentimental. Pygmalion must be accepted on its own terms.
Besides Sparks’ Alfie Doolittle, Whitehead is delightful as Higgins’ crony, Col. Pickering, and the sets, costumes and the requisite London rain are all bloody good, as a crony of Eliza’s might say.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.