BWW Reviews: Playhouse on Park's HIGGINS IN HARLEM Takes Shaw Uptown
Playhouse on Park's HIGGINS IN HARLEM is Shaw with an Uptown Twist
HIGGINS IN HARLEM
Theatre: Playhouse on Park
Location: 244 Park Street, West Hartford, CT
Production: Written and Directed by Lawrence Thelen; Scenic Design by Christopher Hoyt; Lighting Design by Marcus Abbott; Costume Design by Valerie M. Webster; Sound Design by Ryan Kelly. Through March 23; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets $20 to $32.50, visit www.playhouseonpark.org.
George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion has extremely sturdy bones. Debuting in 1912, it has been revived many times as a star vehicle for both its Eliza Doolittles and Henry Higgins. Receiving a miraculously musical makeover, the characters took to singing in Lerner and Loewe's 1956 smash My Fair Lady. Pygmalion has even become an adult sex comedy (Pretty Woman) and a teen sex comedy (She's All That).
In Playhouse on Park's world premiere of Lawrence Thelen's Higgins in Harlem, Shaw's characters hop Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington's A-train for a 1920s Harlem Renaissance reset. What happens when we hop off at 125th doesn't exactly transform Shaw as much as remind us why Pygmalion is so worthwhile.
Surprisingly short on imagination, the production ends up resembling a mostly well-directed, well-acted African American version of a well-loved play. As such, Higgins in Harlem may not have audiences seeing Eliza and Henry with new eyes, it is worth the fare uptown.
Thelen (who also directs) does not rethink the play in any substantial way. He telescopes the action and cuts the cast by half. Scene structures, characters and even some lines from Shaw are maintained wholesale, which is particularly surprising as the legendary playwright is not appropriately credited on the playbill title page for creating the framework and text on which Thelen's Higgins hangs rather snugly.
Eliza, portrayed charmingly and with feeling by Geri-Nikole Love, is still a young flower seller, this time plying her wares in front of the Apollo Theater. Thelen appears hesitant to really go there with making Eliza, in Henry's words, "so deliciously low - so horribly dirty." One could easily imagine how this particularly Eliza could go a bit deeper in the gutter as a guttersnipe, thereby making her transformation to a woman ready to be presented in the highest society all the more jaw-dropping.
This begs a larger question, however, about the central conceit of Higgins in Harlem. Were the social striations that would separate an Eliza and Henry in Edwardian England be as deeply divided during the Harlem Renaissance? Remind oneself that jazz was becoming a great social equalizer and that the post-Civil War Great Migration of African-Americans to New York was in progress.
Wouldn't Eliza or her father, chimney sweep Alfred (Jeffrey Cousar), look at the Higginses of their world as uppity or "high-siddity?" Does it ring true that Mrs. Pearce, part of the serving class, cannot understand what Eliza is saying? Would an upper classes populated with W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston look so disdainfully on people like Eliza and Alfred?
Higgins, played with appropriate starch and bluster by Kevyn Morrow, claims that with proper speech, he could take a pauper off the streets in Harlem and have him making tens of thousands of dollars on Wall Street. In the 1920s, this was simply not possible for a black man. By giving Pygmalion more than just an all-black cast, Higgins in Harlem invites that ever-thorny conversation about race, assimilation, cultural appropriation and America. I am not stating that Eliza and Henry have no business relocating to Harlem, but by adhering so slavishly to Shaw's Pygmalion, Higgins both invites and avoids larger social concerns that the new setting allows.
The performances are uniformly solid, with standout turns offered by Bob Johnson as Pickering and audience favorite Janelle A. Robinson as the crusty Mrs. Higgins. Although appearing a bit too young to believably be Eliza's father, Jeffrey Cousar has a good deal of fun with his performance.
The technical elements of the production are a bit of a mixed bag. The lighting design by Marcus Abbott is well-executed, particularly the famous Apollo Theater sign and the moment when Eliza returns home from the ball and turns on the lights. The costumes designed by Valerie Webster are appropriate and, in the case of Alfred's zoot suit, fun. A little more tarnish and patches on Eliza in the early-going would go a long way.
Whether caused by design or operator error, the sound design by Ryan Kelly was off at certain points and drowning out some dialogue. The set design by Christopher Hoyt is disappointing in not giving much of a sense of place or wealth. Thelen's direction, overall, serves Pygmalion well, including the play's original, heartbreaking finale.