By Diana Saenger
The story may be 100 years old, but The Old Globe Theatre proves George Bernard Shaw’s classic “Pygmalion” can still be funny and heartwarming. With a top-notch cast, a stunning set design and superb direction by Nicholas Martin, the production is delightful.
Charlotte Parry fully embodies her character Eliza Doolittle in the first 10 minutes of the play. She rushes on scene as Colonel Pickering (Paxton Whitehead, Old Globe Associate Artist) is trying to console Mrs. Hill (Maggie Carney) and her daughter Clara (Danielle O’Farrell) for having to wait for a cab.
Eliza immediately speaks in a loud cockney accent trying to sell her flowers when Freddy Hill (Robbie Simpson) runs in and accidently knocks her to the ground. Eliza demands payment for her ruined flowers while Clara adamantly orders her brother to ignore the obscene girl. Everyone is bantering about until the Colonel warns that there’s a man hiding behind a column writing down notes.
Language Professor Henry Higgins (Robert Sean Leonard) steps from the shadows and reveals he’s appalled at the way Eliza speaks. After conversation, Higgins bets the Colonel that in six months he can teach Eliza the proper speech for a lady, cleanup her rag-a-muffin appearance, and have her pass for a woman of distinction. The bet is on.
Lacking self-esteem and with no place to go, Eliza agrees to move into Higgins’ home for the experiment. Even though his own house- keeper (Deborah Taylor) chastises Higgins for the situation he’s put Eliza in (not to mention they way he treats her) Eliza begins to blossom. But for every improvement she makes in her life she must also endure Higgins’ constant putdowns.
The scenic design by Alexander Dodge with a rotating floor is gorgeous, drawing audible sounds of approval from the audience.
It’s hard to take one’s eyes off Higgins’ home with its tall walls and cases full of trophies and other objects — most especially when the floor rotates to reveal Higgins’ mother’s lavish mansion-like home artfully decorated with beautiful accessories.
Against many suggestions, playwright Shaw was always adamant that “Pygmalion” was never intended to be a happy-ever-after experience. Nicholas Martin serves that objective well with this direction.
In her Cinderella-like role Parry invites both empathy and pride throughout her journey. Leonard plays the man we admire but dislike with an even excellence. Whitehead is engaging and Don Sparks is zany and comical as Eliza’s estranged father. Kandis Chapell is totally transparent as a mother who is proud of her scientific son, but appalled every time he opens his mouth.
Audiences will appreciate everything about this production, especially the laughs that just keep coming.
If you go
■ What: ‘Pygmalion’
■ When: Matinees, evenings to Feb. 17
■ Where: The Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
■ Tickets: From $29
■ Phone: (619) 234-5623
■ Web: TheOldGlobe.org