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Gerald Carpenter: ‘My Fair Lady’ Takes the Stage in Solvang’s Festival Theater

Karin Hendricks as Eliza Doolittle and Andrew Philpot as Henry Higgins in the PCPA production of Lerner & Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.”
Karin Hendricks as Eliza Doolittle and Andrew Philpot as Henry Higgins in the PCPA production of Lerner & Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.” (Luis Escobar / Reflections Photography Studio photo)

PCPA's sparkling new production of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady opened Thursday in the Festival Theater in Solvang and will run at 8 p.m. every day (except Mondays) through Sunday, July 12.

The wittiest, prettiest musical ever written, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, was adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play (and Gabriel Pascal's motion picture) Pygmalion.

PCPA's My Fair Lady was directed and choreographed by Michael Jenkinson, with musical direction by Callum Morris, scenic designs by Jason Bolen, costumes by Eddy Barrows, lighting by Michael Frohling, and sound design by Elisabeth Rebel; it will star Karin Hendricks as Eliza Doolittle, Andrew Philpot as Professor Higgins, Erik Stein as Alfred P. Doolitle, Peter Hadres as Colonel Pickering, Kitty Balay as Mrs Higgins, Matt Koenig as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and Elizabeth Stuart as Mrs. Pearce.

Col. Pickering: I say, Higgins, has it occurred to you that the girl might have feelings?

Prof. Higgins [dismissively, after a perfunctory consideration]: Oh, no ... I don't think so — none we need worry about!

George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (1913)

One rainy evening, just as the West End theaters are disgorging their patrons, a brilliant, eccentric linguist, Professor Henry Higgins, prowls London's Covent Gardens, collecting atrocious accents. One of the Cockneys, a grubby flower-seller, takes him for a detective, on account of his note-taking. She sets up a fearful howl, and an older gentleman comes to her defense. This turns out to be a fellow linguist, Col. Pickering, who has come to England from India to meet Higgins, and the two kindred souls bond instantly and agree to become room mates. As the flower girl listens, Higgins tells the colonel that he makes a good living teaching the newly rich how to talk like old money.

"You see this creature with her kerbstone English," he tells Pickering. "The English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. I could even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English. That’s the sort of thing I do for commercial millionaires. And on the profits of it I do genuine scientific work in phonetics, and a little as a poet on Miltonic lines."

The flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, has made notes of her own, having memorized Higgins' address, and the next morning she shows up on his doorstep, wearing a dreadful hat and offering to pay him to teach her to speak, so she can rise in the world. Higgins is going to brusquely refuse, but Col. Pickering reminds him of his boast of the night before. He offers to wager that Higgins can't transform Eliza in three months time, and Higgins, stung, takes him up on it.

So begins one of the classic duels of theater history: Higgins, the arrogant liberal, versus Eliza, the earthy conservative; Higgins, the classicist, versus Eliza, the romantic.

Shaw's play, Pygmalion, teems with philosophical sparring. It is heady stuff, yet if Lerner and Loewe hadn't come along, even factoring in the success of Pascal's 1938 movie, which starred Leslie Howard, with his public school misogyny, and the magnificent Wendy Hiller, it is unlikely that it would now be the best-known of Shaw's plays.

It would be impossible to overestimate the contribution of the music to the apparently undying popularity of this story. The songs, most of them, sound so casual and conversational that we could think they were easy to write, involving little or no art, but nothing could be further from the truth. Dip into Man and Superman, sometime, or Heartbreak House and try setting the dialogue to tunes. As Ringo Starr once wrote: "It don't come easy." But the reason My Fair Lady is a vastly greater musical than Lerner and Loewe's Camelot is Shaw.

Let a woman in your life,

And your sabbatical is through.

In a line that never ends

Comes an army of her friends

Come to jabber and to chatter

And to tell her what the matter

Is with you!

My Fair Lady plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays at the Festival Theater in Solvang, 420 Second St. For single tickets and show times, call the box office at 805.922.8313 or click here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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