Arts & Culture

Theater review: PlayMakers’ ‘My Fair Lady’ emphasizes class struggles of women

From left, Catherine Baird, Shanelle Nicole Leonard, Mia Pinero as Eliza Doolittle, and Jenny Latimer in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “My Fair Lady.”
From left, Catherine Baird, Shanelle Nicole Leonard, Mia Pinero as Eliza Doolittle, and Jenny Latimer in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “My Fair Lady.” Jon Gardiner

Known for its fine comedies and dramas, PlayMakers also has produced contemporary musicals. But “My Fair Lady” is its first “old-fashioned” classic.

Based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” the musical has more dialog than most, with meaty roles for experienced actors, whom the company easily supplies. It’s also PRC’s norm to take new looks at established works, so this production’s emphasis on social problems in 1912 England is understandable.

Under Tyne Rafaeli’s direction, the consequences of Eliza Doolittle’s transformation by linguist Henry Higgins from flower seller to highborn lady influence the whole proceedings. No light musical comedy version, this production de-emphasizes upper class glitter for a realistic portrait of lower class women’s limited options.

McKay Coble’s setting is a shadowy, metallic streetscape constantly filled with fog and steam. Outdoor scenes, even those involving upper class characters, are edged in darkness through Masha Tsimring’s atmospheric lighting. Andrea Hood’s costumes for street characters are tattered and grimy, while those for the upper classes are mostly in dark colors with little dazzle.

Mia Pinero skillfully projects Eliza’s street-wise feistiness, coloring all her reactions. Pinero’s face-mike adds harshness to her intense moments and her highest notes, but she has good comedic instincts and forcefully characterizes “Show Me” and “Without You.”

Jeffrey Blair Cornell turns in a career best as Higgins, astutely balancing blinkered misogynist with secret romantic. He has amazing confidence in the densely packed patter songs and demonstrates impeccable comic timing. He partners well with Ray Dooley, perfectly cast as Higgins’ cohort, Colonel Pickering. Julie Fishell gets some great laughs as Higgins’ mother, Julia Gibson contributes an engaging Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, and Jade Arnold does what he can with the underdeveloped role of love-struck Freddy.

But it’s Gary Milner’s Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, who threatens to steal the show. Milner’s boisterous charm, daredevil antics and choreographic chops make him the quintessential Broadway musical performer.

The decision to use a two-piano accompaniment works well for some numbers but it often becomes edgy and intrusive. Also, actors have trouble negotiating Higgins’ cramped study because it must fit the stage elevator.

If “My Fair Lady” is a favorite musical, you’ll need to accept this staging doesn’t replicate previous Broadway or movie versions. However, even in this conception, many of its delights are still intact.

Details

What: “My Fair Lady”

Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill

When: 7:30 p.m. Apr. 11-15, 18-22, 27-29; 2 p.m. Apr. 15-16, 23

Tickets: $15-$77

Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org

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