George Bernard Shaw's

PYGMALION

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Baughman Theatre - Jackson MI
 

7/15/12-8/11/12

"Pygmalion is a show that beautifully blends all those elements that make theater magical…it isn't merely the skillful acting or talented tech work that makes the show transcendent; it is that it has a soul." – Encore Michigan

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MSF Sculpts a Masterpiece with 'Pygmalion' - Bridgette M. Redman, Encore Michigan

 

The sculptor Pygmalion, upon whom George Bernard Shaw's play of the same name is based, created for himself the perfect woman out of ivory. Despising the company of all other women, his love was a barren one until Venus granted the statue a soul and Pygmalion's kiss brought her to life.

 

In Shaw's play, Henry Higgins attempts to create his version of a perfect woman by plucking a flower girl from the gutter and teaching her perfect English and proper social behavior. It isn't, though, until she finds a soul that he is able to see her as anything other than a work of art.

 

Likewise, in the production of "Pygmalion" at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, it isn't merely the skillful acting or talented tech work that makes the show transcendent; it is that it has a soul.

 

Directed by Jan Blixt, the Festival's artistic director, "Pygmalion" is a show that beautifully blends all those elements that make theater magical. Jeromy Hopgood's Picasso-inspired set pieces frame the play's action, while Melanie Schuessler's costumes set it firmly in 1912.

 

Central to this story are Henry Higgins, the professor of phonetics, and Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl. Played by Joseph Wycoff and Stacy Stoltz respectively, they both bring an energy and authenticity to their roles that make each scene a delight to watch.

 

Wycoff commanded the stage while containing the action with crosses that spoke as voluminously as his not-infrequent speeches. He was arrogant, passionate and disdainful of all conventions that did not serve him. Never did he let the audience think of Higgins as a stuffed shirt or a befuddled academe. Rather, Wycoff's Higgins was powerful, charismatic and insufferable in his intolerance for the stifling norm.

 

Stoltz transformed before the eyes of the audience. Her flower girl was full of vim, and her every move and noise contrasted with the ladies and gentlemen around her to firmly place her outside of their society. Her choices were so broad and committed that it made subsequent scenes even more rewarding, as her body and voice changed but the pepper of her personality still shone through.

 

And while the story belonged primarily to those two, all the actors surrounding them made sure they had the structure to tell their tale. David Turrentine's Colonel Pickering was a delightful English gentleman with passion to match Higgins' while still bowing to the social niceties of the day. Alan Ball's Alfred Doolittle lived up to his name as the most original moralist in London, insouciant in his desire to remain among the undeserving poor.

 

Always a delight on the Michigan Shakespeare Festival stage, Janet Haley's Mrs. Pearce tried nobly to civilize Higgins while maintaining a proper household as his housekeeper. She was at turns stern and motherly with Eliza, an unwilling participant in her transformation.

 

The soul of the play comes in its constant commitment to the story being told. There are no unnecessary movements or distracting bits. It is elegantly focused on the themes of transformation and classism, of finding what is authentic underneath that which is show. Every word and choice is played for the furtherance of the story, making it easy for the audience to get lost in a world of 1912 England where times were begrudgingly changing.

 

The result of the passionate acting and fine direction is the presentation of a classic work free of any cobwebs, one whose story offers as much to ponder now as it did when Shaw first presented it a century ago.

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare's 'Pygmalion' is the original My Fair Lady - Ann Holt, MLive

 

Once you stop waiting for the cast to break into song, you’ll be swept away into the familiar story of a common flower girl who is plucked from the London “gutter” and transformed into a lady in order to win a casual bet.

 

“Pygmalion” is the play from which the classic musical “My Fair Lady” was created. George Bernard Shaw’s original version, written 100 years ago, is a delightful surprise and the perfect finishing touch to an outstanding season for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.

 

Described by the playwright as “a Romance in five Acts,” the comedy actually deals with issues of class, wealth, relationships and the status of women in society, all of which remain relevant today.

 

The consistently strong cast is the key to the success of this production and director Jan Blixt has created another wonderful ensemble production.

 

As Henry Higgins, Joseph Wycoff brings to mind a younger Rex Harrison; but he puts his own stamp on the role, creating a man who is charming, arrogant, childish and outrageous in equal parts. Opposite him Stacy Stoltz, is a memorable Eliza Doolittle. Watching her character grow and change over the course of the evening is a revelation. She is nothing less than perfect.

 

David Turrentine’s Colonel Pickering is a true gentlemen and the antithesis of Professor Higgins (and of “Richard III,” which Turrentine plays as well!). The moment when he addresses Eliza as Miss Doolittle is quite moving.

 

Another moment that is particularly poignant occurs after the bet is won. Higgins and Pickering prattle on congratulating each other on their achievement while Eliza sits to one side totally ignored.

 

In the play all the appropriate moral questions and warnings are raised by Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, played by Janet Haley as a stern but good woman who has learned to put up with her employer and his foibles.

 

Eventually Higgins decides it is time for Eliza to pay a visit to his mother and her friends. In her first attempt at playing the lady in public, Eliza engages in the “new small talk.” Stoltz takes mincing steps as she enters, sits gracefully, and when questioned speaks precisely and carefully. Warming to the occasion, she begins to enjoy her success and dominates the conversation discussing totally inappropriate subjects to the surprise of the other guests. This is a famous scene and the cast nailed it earning spontaneous applause from the preview audience on Eliza’s exit.

 

Mrs. Higgins, the voice of common sense in the production, is played with graciousness and reserved bemusement by Sally Pesetsky, who is every inch the grand lady. Her reactions are priceless. She has (and deserves) the last word in Act I exclaiming “Men! Men!! Men!!!”

 

Alan Ball’s Alfred Doolittle is magnificent. His story parallels that of his daughter in the confusion created by his quick assent to a higher class. His antics and rants are hilarious including the bit of business with the fancy duds he is now required to wear.

 

Amy Montgomery (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill), Elsa Harchick (Clara Eynsford-Hill) and Matt Anderson (Freddy Eynsford-Hill) stand out as a family from another growing social class of the time period, the “genteel poor."

 

Even small roles like the Higgins’ parlour-maid Polly (Lydia Hiller), Bystander (Brandon St. Clair Saunders), Sarcastic Bystander (Wesley Scott), and Taximan (Rick Eva) are fully engaged and contribute to the overall success of the performance.

 

It would be remiss not to mention Elise Kauzlaric for her incredible job coaching this cast in dialects that work beautifully while keeping the words perfectly understandable.

 

Once again the technical aspects are top notch. The music composition by Kate Hopgood had a ragtime feel that seemed just right. Melanie Schuessler’s costumes, for the most part, are lovely; although a suit worn by Professor Higgins in the second act seemed rather modern.

 

Jeremy Hopgood’s abstract concept for the space works well making scene changes quickly and smoothly; but the abstract designs painted on the set pieces were distracting and seemed at odds with the production. After reading the director’s notes in the program, you will understand why the choice was made. It still didn’t work for me.

 

That having been said, this was my personal favorite in a fully realized season. Go see “Pygmalion.” Better yet see all three high quality productions. No passport needed.