By Thom deMartino
What can be permissible by one era’s standards may be unacceptable by another’s: something we, with our more modern sensibilities, sometimes forget. In experiencing the Westminster Rose Center Theater’s outstanding production of “My Fair Lady,” it’s perhaps difficult not to see the beloved musical — and its characters — through a distinctly 21st century lens.
Henry Higgins (Chris Caputo) may be the most intelligent man in the room, but he also has the least social niceties. Crossing paths in a London market with Colonel Pickering (Cliff Senior), a fellow expert in language and dialect, Higgins demonstrates his skill in identifying the locales that members of the crowd hail from, simply from their speech. But when a young Cockney woman from the streets, Eliza Doolittle (Jena Slipp) arrives on his doorstep, asking to be taught how to speak like a lady, Higgins sees it as a challenge: and a bet is struck between Pickering and himself.
But the elitist intellectual also proves to be a relentless taskmaster, constantly belittling Doolittle and subjecting her to his verbal wrath. As time goes on, the lessons and repetition begin sinking in, and it appears she may be on the road to her dream of working in a flower shop, while Higgins has other plans — to see if he can pass off his protégé as royalty amongst the upper classes, and win his bet.
The phoneticist is increasingly baffled and irked at his “creation” having thoughts and desires of her own, as the former flower girl herself begins to blossom as she struggles to find her own identity, beyond that imposed by her so-called benefactor and the rest of society.
“My Fair Lady” is truly a classic and beloved musical, and the Rose Center Theater production truly does justice to the work, with lavish costumes, beautiful scenery and exuberant dance numbers. There are numerous stand-out performances, including Dale Jones as Eliza’s ne’er-do-well father, Alfred P. Doolittle, and Cliff Senior as the kindly, paternal Pickering: but the most striking work is by the two leads themselves.
Caputo is delightfully, unrepentantly callous as Higgins, a man who shows as little vulnerability as possible, for fear of showing weakness or sentiment: while in a different era, he may have been seen simply as overly harsh, in today’s society he comes across as socially awkward and grating — a narcissistic, tyrannical bully, set on bending a young woman of lower station to his will, all for the sake of his own pride. (Besides his engaging and lively performance, Caputo also plays multiple roles behind the scenes of the show as technical director, as well as lighting and scenic designer.)
But the production truly revolves around Slipp’s Eliza, and rightly so. Not only does she bewitch and delight as the flower girl dreaming of a better life, but her performances in numbers such as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” are mellifluous, melodious, and ultimately mesmerizing — quite the feat for a freshman actor, new to the stage.
It should be noted, watching the patriarchal society of Edwardian London and its patronizing, dismissive attitudes towards its female members may startle some modern-day viewers — particularly in how Higgins bullies, even threatens, Eliza.
“He’s horrible!” chuckles director Tim Nelson, when asked about Higgins’ misogynistic mannerisms. “He’s horrible to her, and the way that he treats her… [but] what I always feel is, that we get to see different glimpses of some kind of a depth in him. When you think about when it was written…that [behavior] would never fly now.”
Though times and standards may change, the Rose Center Theater’s production of “My Fair Lady” demonstrates that true art inspires and transcends, in any day and age.
“My Fair Lady.” Jena Slipp, Chris Caputo and Cliff Senior star in this lively and charming production of the classic musical. Playing through March 5 at the Rose Center Theater, 14140 All American Way, Westminster, CA. Appropriate for all ages.
Categories: Arts & Leisure