San Diego Theater Review: PYGMALION (Old Globe)

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by Jesse David Corti on February 11, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Transformation. Evolution. Metamorphosis. These words are often confined to biological definition, abused in a critic’s articulation, and criminally under-applied by artists of this generation. Most popular art today can be likened to fast food: Sub-par products synthesized under the pretense that it’s what the consumer is Jesse David Corti's Stage and CInema review of PYGMALION at The Old Globe in San Diegodemanding. In actuality, it is an assault upon the public; merely dressing up the same, mass-produced products with heavier advertising and merchandising.

100 years ago, the world was stirred by the expansive, challenging visions of D.W. Griffith films, the American experience set to Irving Berlin’s music, and the poignant wit of George Bernard Shaw’s writings. Pygmalion, written by Shaw in 1912, is about the transformation of a Cockney flower girl – by way of cantankerous speech professor, Henry Higgins – into a well-spoken respectable woman worthy of the Queen’s court. For 100 years, the play has remained popular whether on stage, the silver screen (for which Shaw received a 1938 Best Screenplay Oscar), or in the musical adaptation, My Fair Lady. The lavish production of Pygmalion currently on at The Old Globe proves just why this classic tale resonates with audiences as Nicolas Martin’s clever and fluid direction of a dynamic ensemble brings Shaw’s humorous yet unsentimental text vividly alive.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and CInema review of PYGMALION at The Old Globe in San DiegoRobert Sean Leonard steps into the slippers of the stage’s most well known Professor and gives a more casual interpretation of the upper-crust man-child Henry Higgins than others who have inhabited the role. This is a character that Leonard may sink into better in ten years’ time; his occasionally slipping accent and youthful visage put the talented actor at an unnecessary deficit. Leonard’s Higgins is quicker to react with boisterous befuddlement towards that which frustrates him instead of attacking it with irascible indignation.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and CInema review of PYGMALION at The Old Globe in San DiegoCharlotte Parry is adorably radiant as Higgins’ protégé Eliza Doolittle; thoroughly funny, charmingly magnetic, and deliciously sophisticated when she transforms. Paxton Whitehead exudes dignity through every thread of his being as Colonel Pickering and provides a gravitas that elevates the proceedings and the performances of his fellow players. Kandis Chappell is positively zestful as Mrs. Higgins, her poised but cutting demeanor shows both where her son inherited his wit from and why he finds everyone unworthy of his time and affection; nobody measures up to his peerless mother. But the most entertaining performer of the lot is Don Sparks as the ranting lower class moralist, Mr. Doolittle, Eliza’s father. Sparks chews up the scenery with his facial expressions and steals the show with his exquisite and joyfully earthy comic performance.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and CInema review of PYGMALION at The Old Globe in San DiegoThe design elements are sublime. Whether it is Higgins’ full and cluttered laboratory – filled with a small organ and console, a gramophone, a button tufted leather sofa and over-stuffed bookshelves – or Mrs. Higgins’ elegantly dressed drawing room with white-wicker furniture, formidable columns, and splendid sculptures (a lovely reference to the story’s Greek mythological origins), Alexander Dodge’s scenic design is immense, intricate, and immersive; the towering sets (that revolve) stunningly recreate the Edwardian era. Robert Morgan’s costumes effectively reveal each character’s personality, draping a wide range of classes from elegantly outfitted aristocrats to endearingly dressed street urchins. Philip S. Rosenberg’s warm lighting design allows the accomplished actors, distinctive costumes, and sumptuous sets to radiate brightly.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and CInema review of PYGMALION at The Old Globe in San DiegoRingmaster Nicolas Martin deserves praise for skillfully staging Pygmalion with a light touch and elegant flair, best exemplified by the scenes with Mr. Doolittle and when Eliza tells off Professor Higgins in the last act. The ending deviates slightly from the text by providing the equivalent of an ellipsis where an exclamation point might be better suited, but in this day and age where polished and packaged muck is sold as entertainment (and, worse, regarded as art), it is rejuvenating to see such a well-realized, freshly presented and vivaciously delivered production of a classic.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and CInema review of PYGMALION at The Old Globe in San Diego


photos by Henry DiRocco

Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
The Old Globe in San Diego’s Balboa Park
scheduled to end on February 17, 2013
for tickets, call (619) 234-5623
or visit

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