Who's educating whom? This is the not-so-cryptic underlying question of Willy Russell's Educating Rita, the veddy British dramedy that in the 80s made a star out of Julie Walters, who originated the title role on London's West End and reprised it in a well-received film co-starring Michael Caine. While Rita is the one seeking an education, her tutor, Frank, is immersed in a serious case of Professor, teach thyself.
The parts of the alcoholic Open University prof and the working-class girl he's tutoring in literature and in life are decidedly showy ones. In other words, there's dangerous opportunity for the pair playing the roles in Russell's two-character play to run amok.
Director Rosina Reynolds keeps that from happening in the North Coast Rep's new production of Educating Rita, which features Meghan Andrews (last seen at NCR in Words by Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook) as the unpolished hairdresser who reads Harold Robbins, and Bjorn Johnson as Frank, who hides his Scotch whiskey on bookshelves behind volumes of Dickens.
Andrews' accent doesn't always sound exclusively Liverpudlian, and she occasionally seems to speak to the audience rather than to Johnson, but her good-natured Rita is a sympathetic one. She also gets to change outfits a dozen times. The more restrained Johnson, with his unkempt hair and beard bears Frank's burdens of booze and too many bad essays well, and he conveys the rumpled look of a timeworn academic.
Like Pygmalion, Educating Rita is a tale of opposite classes learning to appreciate the other. Rita wants to understand great literature; Frank, it turns out, wants to understand her (he's given up on himself). The two searching souls achieve a restless acceptance of their destinies, Frank's more restless than Rita's.
There are moments of genuine warmth and amusement in this production, though many of the quickly unfolding mini-scenes are short on dramatic tension. Frank's college-office set, in which the entire play takes place, would feel claustrophobic if it weren't so appealing (kudos to scenic artist John Finkbiner). No wonder it is, in different ways, both Frank's and Rita's escape.
Educating Rita runs through Feb. 3 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. $37-$54. northcoastrep.org
Charley's Aunt: It's the late-1800s, and two college men want to get with a couple of young lasses. They plan a get-together to coincide with a visit from a rich aunt from Brazil. But, as usual with this sort of farce, things go haywire. Opens Jan. 18 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
Leading Ladies: It's the late-1950s, and two struggling actors decide to pose as two missing men who are due an inheritance. When it turns out the missing pair are actually women, the actors decide to go through with the scheme in drag. Opens Jan. 17 at Avo Playhouse in Vista. moonlightstage.com
Pete 'n Keely: It's the late-1960s, and a successful singing duo who haven't spoken in five years have decided to reunite for a live TV special. Opens Jan. 18 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
An American Story: In this musical, playwright, actor, composer and producer Hershey Felder plays Charles Leale, the 23-year-old doctor who tended to Abraham Lincoln after the president was shot at Ford's Theatre. Through Feb. 3 at the Birch North Park Theatre. birchnorthparktheatre.net
Educating Rita: A dissatisfied hairdresser decides to enroll in an English lit class and seeks tutelage from an alcoholic university professor. The relationship forces both to assess their place in life. Through Feb. 3 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
A Feminine Ending: An oboist struggles to juggle her own artistic career and the demands of her boyfriend, a pop star on the rise. Through Feb. 10 at Scripps Ranch Theatre. scrippsranchtheatre.org
Clybourne Park: In this award-winning, sort-of sequel to A Raisin in the Sun, a suburban Chicago home is the setting for tense race relations in 1959 (Act 1) and 2009 (Act. 2), with the same actors playing different characters in each act. Through Feb. 10 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sdrep.org
miXtape: Generation X was torn between disillusionment and hope in this cavalcade of music from the 1980s. Produced by Lamb's Players Theatre, it runs through Feb. 17 at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown. lambsplayers.org
Pygmalion: You know My Fair Lady. Well, this is the 1912 George Bernard Shaw play on which that beloved musical was based—the story of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Through Feb. 17 at the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
South Pacific: Love blossoms for two couples amid racial prejudice and World War II in this classic musical. Runs through March 17 at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido. welktheatres.com
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net