‘My Fair Lady’ explored reality before reality was cool
By Kara Patterson, Appleton Post-Crescent
They’re sometimes called Cinderella tales, or rags-to-riches stories. In reality television, people undergo transformations under the watchful eye of so-called experts in trends, fashion and style.
In the musical “My Fair Lady,” set in London in 1912, a professor turns a young and unrefined flower peddler into a lady whose speech, manner and dress reflect the upper class of British society. Along the way, teacher learns lessons from student about inner strength, determination and love.
Cast members of a revival of the classic 1950s musical, which will run at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in downtown Appleton from Tuesday through Oct. 21 on its first U.S. national tour, say the production’s staying power has much to do with the appeal such rags-to-riches stories have.
“Today we are obsessed with the idea of social experiments,” said actress Lisa O’Hare, a native of northern England who portrays flower peddler Eliza Doolittle, the role she originated on the revival’s extended United Kingdom tour that began in fall 2005. “We are all hooked on ‘American Idol’ and all these reality shows. In a way Eliza’s journey is the same. She is taken from a deprived background and made to succeed in another social environment. We as an audience root for the underdog and want him or her to succeed.”
This revival first opened at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2001 and then played at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on London’s West End for nearly three years. It’s the 2007-08 season opener for the PAC’s M&I Bank Broadway Across America-Fox Cities lineup that includes newer musicals such as “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
“‘My Fair Lady’ is a terrific show to kick off our fifth anniversary season,” PAC president Susan Stockton said. “I’ve seen this production, and the two leads, Christopher Cazenove and Lisa O’Hare, are just magnificent. Sally Ann Howes, who appeared in the original Broadway production, is now on tour with this show.”
The musical, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” originally opened in New York in 1956, where it ran for 2,717 performances. It is one of the top 15 longest-running Broadway musicals, with eight 1956 Tony Awards to its credit and a film version that won eight 1964 Academy Awards.
Shaw’s play itself is based on a Greek myth that tells of a sculptor named Pygmalion who falls in love with his own creation. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, brings Pygmalion’s statue of a woman, Galatea, to life.
“When you’re working with such great material to begin with, I think the audience delights in rediscovering everything that’s happening,” said Adam Laird, 23, a 2002 Fox Valley Lutheran High School graduate who is an ensemble cast member. He also understudies the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young gentleman who courts the “new” Eliza.
Over the course of the show Professor Henry Higgins, a scholar set in his ways, realizes he has grown more attached to Eliza than he would care to admit. What begins as a pet project evolves into a personal relationship.
“It’s interesting that although (Eliza) becomes, in fact, she is still, the strong woman she started off being, Higgins changes,” said British actor Cazenove, of television’s “Dynasty,” who is reprising Higgins, a role he originated on the production’s extended U.K. tour. “In personality she remains the same, whereas he, surprisingly for him, suddenly finds his emotional center. He becomes aware he is ‘accustomed to her face.’“
The production demonstrates how shallow social class systems really are, said actress Howes, who followed Julie Andrews as Eliza in the original Broadway production and who now plays the role of Mrs. Higgins, the professor’s mother.
“One of the most important things is with education and knowledge you can go far, and it is our duty to educate and help people on,” said Howes, a native of England whose film credits include “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” “I think it also gives hope to people in its own way, that you can start with nothing and you can grow and achieve something. This is always an exciting thing.”