My Fair Lady
Through April 29
PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill
Education changes everything. That’s one of the reasons George Bernard Shaw’s twist on the Pygmalion tale, adapted as the musical My Fair Lady
at PlayMakers Repertory Company, could be something of a tender subject in a region where the transformative powers of learning have long been championed.
It is widely held here that, through scholarship, people can transcend the limitations of culture, economics, class, and gender. And that statement is true—at least, insofar as it goes. But for many, transcending the limits of their native culture involves the painful realization that an aspect of themselves—their faith, intellect, values, or gender identity—no longer permits them to return to, or function within, the family or community they came from.
That’s the dilemma Eliza faces in the second act of this Tony Award-winning musical. Though she is unfamiliar with the upper class she has reached, and her acceptance there is provisional at best, already she cannot return to the circumscribed affections of her father or the earthy milieu of Covent Garden street life.
Since Bernard Shaw’s script emphasized changes in speech as a means of changing class, he may well have been among the first thinkers to realize the necessity of code-switching to circumvent the rigid social barricades of his time. But in his world and that of his adapter, Alan Jay Lerner, the switch only turns in one direction, and when it gets stuck in mid-turn, one may end up welcome in no worlds at all.
On McKay Coble’s atmospheric London street set of black wrought iron, brick, and silvered, dirty windows, director Tyne Rafaeli fleshes out the Edwardian culture of Lady
’s script while cutting against the romanticism long associated with Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe’s songs. After Eliza (a mercurial Mia Pinero) regards an opening snow shower with distrust, a concerned suffragette hands her a political pamphlet. Under Mark Hartman’s musical direction, Pinero’s luminous voice fills the stage unaccompanied in the opening verse of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” but the song's happy-go-lucky sentiments are prematurely silenced when she’s suddenly forced to hold at bay a member of her street sweeper chorus who’s tried to steal her purse.
The PlayMakers production marks the first time I’ve seen this musical accompanied by two pianos (played by Hartman and Alex Thompson) instead of an orchestra. That change brings a stripped-down freshness and intimacy to introspective moments in numbers like “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “Without You.” Still, four hands on two concert grands didn’t entirely sell the raucous rave-ups in “I’m an Ordinary Man,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Perhaps that had more to do with Anna Warda Alex’s frequently muddy sound mix, which shortchanged the piano’s lower notes as well as the higher frequencies in miked spoken and sung passages throughout the evening.
Jeffrey Blair Cornell flawlessly conveys the irascibility and sexism of Professor Henry Higgins, and Ray Dooley embodies the warmth of his colleague, Colonel Pickering, while Pinero’s Eliza ably navigates the tricky path of a woman walking between worlds. Julia Gibson supports as Higgins’s long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, and Julie Fishell ably fills out Higgins’s even longer-suffering mother. Tracey Bersley’s imaginative choreography animates the numbers mentioned here, sending actor Gary Milner as Eliza’s father, Alfred, into several unlikely locales in Paul Green Theatre.
But the subtlest and most effective critique of the Edwardian era, and of Higgins’s dogged lack of empathy for those not of his class or gender, comes in the final sequences. One by one, the set elements that make up the professor’s study are subtracted during scene changes. In the end, when Higgins ultimately makes his house no home for anyone else, he sits in his upholstered chair next to a floor lamp and a side table in the middle of a blackened London street. The German term unheimlich
, whose two senses mean eerie and un-homelike, has rarely felt more apt.