“HIGGINS IN HARLEM” SHOWS ELIZA IN A NEW LIGHT

BONNIE GOLDBERG
Everyone knows the story of “Pygmalion,” originally penned by George Bernard Shaw in 1912, about an arrogant phonetics teacher, Professor Henry Higgins, who snatches a Cockney flower girl from the gutters of London. He bets his colleague Colonel Pickering that he can magically transform her, one Eliza Doolittle, to pass as royalty by simply teaching her to speak properly.

Years later, a glorious musical, “My Fair Lady,” again captured the world’s heart when Lerner and Loewe set the story in song, called by some “the perfect musical.”

Now the original story has been adapted once again, this time by playwright Lawrence Thelen, this time set in 1938 in Harlem, New York, with an all African-American cast.¬†West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park is giving it a delightful world premiere production until Sunday, March 23. “Higgins in Harlem” is ready for its unveiling! Come experience the joy anew!

Kevyn Morrow is the debonair and sophisticated professor who prides himself on his attention to vowels and consonants, speech patterns and dialects, especially as they reveal class and status. With the mellow notes of jazz resounding in the background, we find a charmingly bedraggled Eliza, captured beautifully by Geri-Nicole Love, in front of the Apollo Theater, trying to sell her daisies for a nickel and her roses for a dime.

Soon the wager is set and Eliza is established in Sugar Hill, to the care of Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs Pearce (Xenia Gray) to be scrubbed and made ready for her make-over. Six long grueling months later, with the help of Pickering (Bob Johnson) and Henry’s mother (Janelle A. Robinson), the admiration of Freddie Hill (Joshua Ramos), the questioning positions of his mother and sister (Aurelia Clunie and Vanessa Butler) and the skepticism of Eliza’s father (Jeffrey Cousar), Eliza is victoriously presented to Harlem society.

When Higgins and Pickering take all the credit for her success, denigrating any contribution she made to her own revelations, Eliza asserts her independence and, in effect, scores a knockout with her sanctimonious teacher.

Thelen directs this unconventional but rewarding revisit to Shaw’s original work, an idea he developed while watching the Emmys years ago and a verbal confrontation between Wanda Sykes and Bill Cosby. The cast works well together to bring this familiar tale to new and intriguing life.

For tickets ($32.50 ), call Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford at 860-523-5900, ext. 10 or online at www.playhouseonpark.org. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Plan a visit to Renaissance Harlem to see the traditional tale of a teacher and his eager pupil, with the twist of time and place an interesting change of pace.

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