My Fair Lady,” the classic Lerner and Loewe musical that opens for a two-and-a-half-week run this coming Thursday at the Marian Theatre, is balanced on both sides by history. On one side, any production has to escape from the clutches of the past: based on a Greek myth, turned into a George Bernard Shaw play, and then into a musical in 1956 and then the film in 1964. That’s a lot of learned culture and imagery. On the other side, there’s the politics of the musical that butts up against our cultural mores. In modern parlance, there’s a lot of “mansplaining” in this story of the upper-class phoneticist Henry Higgins, who teaches the lower-class Eliza Doolittle to erase her awful Cockney speech and ascend to high society.
“The parts that are giving us the hardest time is the relationship between Higgins and Doolittle,” says Andrew Philpot, who plays Higgins. “They have this teacher-student relationship, but at some point they are falling in love. But Higgins is so emotionally blocked and so not a ‘people person’ that it’s hard to find those moments where there is that connection. Because I spend so much of my time berating her and making fun of her!… I would hope the audience will be laughing at me (as Higgins) and not nodding their heads in agreement. He is a lost soul. Somewhere in his history, he was done wrong.”
This is Solvang resident Mr. Philpot’s 49th production with PCPA, and his work with director Michael Jenkinson goes back 10 years. The director has been in productions of “My Fair Lady” as an actor, and has experience as a choreographer, and according to his actor is pouring a lot into this production — more than usual.
His Eliza Doolittle is played by PCPA resident actress Karin Hendricks, and all three have worked together many times over the years.
“She instinctually knows how to play everything,” Mr. Philpot says. “I’m in constant awe of her…. She acts from her heart all the time, and she makes me feel safe up there.”
“My Fair Lady” rests on its music — timeless numbers like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” — but also its comedy. Mr. Philpot agrees. “Every time I open up the script it makes me laugh so much,” he says.
“I know it’s a cliche, but there’s something about the jokes that are timeless,” Mr. Philpot says. “It’s one of the most naturally witty and brilliant pieces of theater I’ve come across…. There’s something about teaching a person a new way of behaving that is fascinating.”
PCPA rehearsals last six weeks, much longer than any summer stock theater. When rehearsals are short and the musical is well known, it’s too easy to turn to the film as a crutch. Not so here.
“I’ve had a pretty easy time getting Rex Harrison (the original Higgins) out of my head,” he says. “I have no business doing a Rex Harrison imitation anyway! I played the lead in ‘The Music Man’ a few years back and getting Robert Preston out of my head was much harder.”
So, yes, it’s a light play and designed to delight, but audiences shouldn’t miss the more complicated undercurrents.
“There’s a huge presumption there, in positioning yourself as a Svengali,” says Mr. Philpot. “Eliza will outgrow him, I’m sure. George Bernard Shaw knew that, that she’d find her own voice. But where are they at the end point? That’s what audiences I suppose are left to wonder.”
“My Fair Lady”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday (opening night), Wednesday, Friday-Sunday, through May 10
Where: Marian Theatre, 800 S. College, Santa Maria
Information: (805) 922-8313, www.pcpa.org