George Bernard Shaw no doubt got his inspiration for the title of his play from the definition of the word – “The Pygmalion effect, is the phenomenon whereby others’ expectations of a target person affect the target person’s performance.” And that is as good a summation as any of the core conceit of the play on display at Spotlighters Theatre. Can a common flower seller be trained and educated to become something she’s not, and passed off as a duchess? Can a sow’s ear become the silk purse? Can the guttersnipe become a lady or at least learn to look and act like one? In the production of “Pygmalion” at Spotlighters Theatre, the answer is a resounding, ‘YES!’
Shaw’s play is much more widely known these days as the basis for the iconic musical “My Fair Lady.” Indeed, I’m sure there are people that have no idea the musical was based on this play. I knew about Shaw’s play but had never seen it. I thought seeing it would be much the way I experience a movie called “Anna and the King of Siam.” It’s the movie and book that the musical “The King and I” is based on, and every time I see it (though it’s a very good movie) I keep waiting on the songs and dances to start and it always makes me feel like I’m missing something. “Pygmalion” is nothing like that for me. It stands sturdily and steadfastly on its own two feet and no subsequent iterations have improved on that, music or no.
It is a privilege to watch this level of talent.
Even directed with the same sure, deft hand and laser focus I’ve come to expect from Sherrionne Brown, this is a long evening of theatre. But it is such good theatre that it passes more quickly than you would imagine. I was actually surprised at what time it was when the bows began! Ms. Brown keeps the action moving, orchestrates the scene changes with alacrity and has obviously rehearsed her actors well enough that the dialogue gallops along like a well-trained thoroughbred.
Assistant Director and Dialogue Coach Phil Gallagher has done an outstanding job of giving the actors the phonetic tools needed to pull off the British accents that range from the posh to the cockney. Even when the accents landed somewhere in the region known as the ‘Mid-Atlantic’, they still sounded heads above the usual interpretations found on our local stages. Ms. Brown is also credited with the Set Design and Scenic Art, all of which lend just the right note to the proceedings. Brad Ranno’s lighting nicely illuminates it all, especially on the gorgeous costumes supplied by Jenifer Grundy Hollett.
There were a couple of small technical issues that don’t bear mentioning because I’m sure they will be straightened out with a little time. Which brings me to an important point. As is wont to happen with live theatre, the production had to overcome a couple of HUGE obstacles – one behind the scenes and one on the stage. Backstage, the theatre had to find a last-minute replacement for a critical tech person in the booth. And onstage, one of the actors had to be replaced just a few days (and I do mean a very few – like two!) before the opening. It is a testament to the dedication of everyone involved that both of these issues were handled with the grace of seasoned professionals.
Supporting players were all well suited to their parts, especially Hillary Mazer as Mrs. Higgins and Caelyn Sommerville as Clara Eynsford Hill. Carlo Olivi and Melissa Mcginley rounded out the Eynsford Hill family. Both were appropriately cast and very watchable. Jenifer Grundy Hollett had a fine turn as Mrs. Pearce. And in a couple of supporting roles, Don Lampasone did yeoman’s work, having joined the cast just a few days before the opening. A true professional, my hat is off to this brave actor who took on a challenge and made it a performance he has every right to be proud of. Sarah Weissman skillfully completed the ensemble in a number of supporting parts.
Rich Espy’s Alfred Doolittle was so well performed that Rich all but disappeared and ol’ Alfie owned the stage every time he was on. Randy Dalmas was all sputter and encouragement as Colonel Pickering. While his accent did tend to drift across the pond from time to time, he nonetheless was the Pickering we have come to know and love from the musical and was a welcomed oasis of calm in the midst of the chaos created by Henry and Eliza.
Henry Higgins was brought to life by an exceptionally fine actor, but British native Phil Gallagher had a leg up, as the familiar accent was his – though I’m told that he doesn’t really sound that ‘posh’ in his daily life. Posh or not, he was every inch the brash, exasperating and self-centered if well-meaning professor.
But the absolute, truly outstanding, utterly enchanting performance of the night was by Linae’ C. Bullock as Eliza Doolittle. Never mind that the last time I saw this young lady she was in a production of “Two Trains Running¸” by August Wilson, playing a part that was as Black American as a big bowl of collard greens and ham hocks and twice as satisfying. Ms. Bullock will be a much-needed reminder to the theatre-going public that actors of color can and should be playing these classic roles whenever they are available. This Eliza had an accent that was as spot-on as it would be had she been actually born in one of the dodgier neighborhoods of London. She’s not just a good actor, she is a fantastic actor and deserves every accolade that will no doubt come her way. It is a privilege to watch this level of talent.
Running Time: 2 hours 40, with one intermission.
“Pygmalion” runs through March 10, 2019, at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore MD 21202. Click here for tickets.