Almost completely forgotten nowadays are the many attempts over many years to turn George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion into a musical—by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, among others. Then—when it had all but been declared impossible—Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe created the seemingly effortless My Fair Lady. Even then an early pessimist was Mary Martin, who turned down a Lerner-Loewe offer to play Eliza Doolittle.
But that was then. Today Shaw’s Pygmalion is considered far and wide to be My Fair Lady without the songs. Nevertheless, determined theater practitioners continue to mount productions. Not too long ago the Old Vic, still under Kevin Spacey’s artistic directorship, presented one with Tim Pigott-Smith as an immensely amusing klutz of a Henry Higgins.
Still, it does require a certain amount of guts to take Pygmalion on and hope the audience won’t be mentally inserting the irresistible songs the whole time. Well, here comes Bedlam’s Eric Tucker, whose chutzpah capabilities apparently have no bounds. He’s done up a fine six-actor Pygmalion in which he’s the self-impressed, socially inept, bearded Henry Higgins.
Instant additional thanks to Tucker and Bedlam for offering this Pygmalion when, uptown at Lincoln Center, the heavily promoted My Fair Lady revival is already in previews. To anyone deciding whether to attend this Pygmalion when the enhanced version is also available with undoubtedly all the expected uptown extravagance, I say you must go downtown as well. That’s if you’re truly interested in Shaw and potent theater.
You must, because of the opportunity to encounter Tucker’s extremely strong but severely arrested-development Higgins as well as Vaishnavi Sharma’s multi-dimensional Eliza Doolittle. Yes, an actor with an unmistaken Indian name is playing the classic role.
And no, Sharma isn’t Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for whom the enthralled Shaw fashioned the role. Yet, the playwright might not have objected to the liberties Tucker has taken with the script in changing Eliza to a destitute Indian flower girl working Covent Gardens and Tottenham Court Road. It’s hardly an outlandish notion.
When Eliza comes to Higgins for speech improvement, the tortured accent that needs ameliorating is different, but the challenge is the same. Which brings up a major discrepancy between ur-Shaw and Lerner-Loewe and the “Rain in Spain” Shaw.
My Fair Lady devotees nowadays are surprised to discover that Shaw devoted much less time to Eliza’s rigorous training than Lerner and Loewe did. Shaw spends almost no time on it, merely assuming the work gets done so that Eliza can be presented to the friends whom Mrs. Higgins (Edmund Lewis) gathers to meet the refined young friend who talks the new small talk so blithely.
And whereas Lerner and Loewe present Eliza as a young woman who learns to speak up for herself in rounded tones, Shaw makes certain she has the opportunity to express herself at Higgins’ level—if not more so.
As forever the champion of intelligent women (Major Barbara Ellie Dunn, et cetera), Shaw includes a final Eliza-Higgins debate wherein she challenges him point for point and gains the upper hand. This is Shaw writing at the top of his convictions. In My Fair Lady Eliza just lets the audience know what she’s thinking when, at curtain, Higgins demands his slippers.
Tucker and Sharma perform this verbal competition with great finesse on John McDermott’s very simple set. They’re hardly alone in the sleek performing. Tucker’s direction of the small cast is at a consistent peak. Proper mentions definitely go to Gore’s affable Pickering, Annabel Capper’s chiseled-profile Mrs. Pearce, Lewis’s unpushy turn as the very proper, very wise Mrs. Higgins, and go particularly to Rajesh Bose as Alfred Doolittle, unquestionably one of Shaw’s great characters. Bose embodies the shockingly first-rate moral philosopher to the last jot and tittle. This is comic thesping at an airy height.
There is a minor drawback to this gem-like achievement. Trimming the cast to six requires doubling during the high-hilarity tea to-do, the original one not at Ascot. Tucker has the characters holding hats they put on and take off to indicate whether, for instance, Lewis is appearing as Mrs. Higgins at the moment or as Freddy Eynsford-Hill. The fast-paced routine is intended to be cute, but the only effect it has is narrative confusion.
That criticism lodged, it has to be said that Bedlam’s Pygmalion is a smart reminder at a time when it might be welcome that Shaw has plenty he wants to say in deft tones and that he wasn’t just putting forth material to be a source for a great musical. Yes, what was wrought from it is magnificent, but some significant Shavian beliefs are still espoused only in the original. It’s always a pleasure to see and hear them again.
Pygmalion opened on March 27, 2018, at the Sheen Center and closes April 22. Tickets and information at sheencenter.org