Monday, November 16, 2009

At Big Idea Theatre: An American Pygmalion

Photo: Melissa Rae Frago, Scott Divine

The New York Times just reported a new scandal: teachers are selling their lesson plans at places like Craigslist and eBay. The activity raises the question: Who owns the plans?

By ironic coincidence the story makes a footnote to George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” now staged by Sacramento’s Big Idea Theatre, in an American version by Melissa Rae Frago, who also plays the lead female role.

The story was inspired by a Greek myth. Pygmalion, a sculptor, creates an ideally beautiful female statue he names Galatea and falls in love with her. Aphrodite, goddess of love, rewards him by bringing the statue to life. Shaw modernized the tale in 1916 by having Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor, perform an experiment on a poorly educated cockney, Eliza Doolittle, by transforming her into a lady. Shaw’s popular play was later developed into the musical “My Fair Lady.”

Shaw’s version works because a century ago England’s leaders, in politics and business, came from the upper classes. But in today’s more-or-less egalitarian America, the remnants of an upper class have become virtually irrelevant. In the Frago version we do get a brief glance at the upper-crust Hill family, who include Mrs. Higgins (Susan Madden), Henry’s mother. Mainly they’re distinguished by their taste for “The New Small Talk.”

The story opens on a street where Eliza, a lowbrow diva, is singing for money. In a spirited exchange with Henry (Scott Divine), who’s accompanied by his pal “Cole” Pickering (Gregory Smith), she discovers that he teaches people how to refine their speech. Later she comes to his office and insists on hiring him to teach her to refine her own speech. Instead he decides to use her for an experiment and turns her over to his assistant, Ms. Pearce (Sierra Hersek), to begin by changing her tacky wardrobe.

During the lengthy process of transformation, Henry receives an unexpected visitor, a shabby Alfred Doolittle (James Roberts). He announces that he’s her father and insinuates that he has a lively interest in the proceedings and wants to capitalize on her good fortune. In the second act, in fashionable clothes, he returns, lamenting that he’s been “delivered into middle-class morality.”

The end product is a mixture of success and failure. Eliza becomes a successful nightclub singer and maintains an ambiguous relationship with Henry, who is clearly not the marrying kind.

With a capable cast, director Shannon Mahoney keeps up a brisk pace on the spare stage, except for one glaring flaw. At a piano in the second act Eliza, now a star, demonstrates her newly developed singing abilities. Other actors, though, in the foreground with backs turned, screen her from many in the audience.

All in all, Frago’s interesting experiment doesn’t quite come off believable as something that could happen in today’s America. Today’s Higgins would probably send Eliza to a community college. Why not give us Shaw unabridged?

“Pygmalion” continues through December 5 at Big Idea Theatre, 1616 Del Paso Boulevard. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 and $15, with group rates available. Call 916-960-3036 or see

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