I'm involved with a literacy-services program that once in a while finds me at seminars out of the county. One recent trip put me in front of a speaker who must be up for a job with the idiots working to mandate English as this country's official language. "Change takes guts," she snorted, all but declaring that foreign-born literacy students must be ready to sacrifice the most public aspects of their cultures (i.e., their accents) as they cop to her idea of the proper reading and speaking skills.
She'd get off on My Fair Lady , Cygnet Theatre Company's current musical, or at least on the way it ends. In the first place, there's a lot to like theatrically. The play, which opened to Broadway raves 50 years ago March 15, sports richly written roles that define characters rather than merely signal tunes; it's one of the few so-called Golden Age entries that could stand up without its score. It also features some of the most memorable songs in modern performance history (Frederick Loewe's "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Get Me to the Church on Time" and 812 others).
And here, we get to see Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray play Professor Henry Higgins, the snotty British dialect geek who browbeats ragamuffin flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Amy Biedel) into mainstream King's English speech. He's damn good amid Henry's subtle, fixed sneer and trumpety inflections. (He also co-directs.)
Like all great theater, though, My Fair Lady speaks to the unapparent. Eliza and Henry aren't just locked in a battle of wills. They're the central figures in a small-scale culture war in 1914 London, with the unflappable Henry betting his friend Colonel Pickering (a good but underused Tom Stephenson) he can transform Eliza into a proper lady. He succeeds, but at a cost. Now that Eliza's been reinvented into another stratum, she angrily finds her independence, and the distraught professor pines for the relationship he once took for granted ("I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face").
From there, Eliza is neatly trapped between two brilliant understories, those of her kindly would-be suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Sean Cox) and her besotted father Alfred (Ron Choularton in a purposely one-dimensional role). Biedel makes a good Eliza-and she'll kill me, but she'd be great if only she were a tad younger. Her fairly settled look tends to wash out some of Eliza's pre-transformation fire in the belly. Everybody else is fine.
The promotional stuff says this is a "chamber" production, and the term is apt. The close-ish quarters preclude bigger choreography from co-director David Bannen, and the canned music doesn't exactly project dimension. While these elements distract, they're not necessarily fatal. And is Jeanne Reith ever going to stumble in her costume designs?
But, man, the ending grates big-time on modernist nerves. The text is based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts , in which Eliza adamantly refuses to become Henry's trophy (she storms offstage at the end after Henry tells her to make him a sandwich). Maybe writer Alan Jay Lerner thought he was being clever, but he thoroughly upsets that balance with My Fair Lady 's conclusion. I'll not reveal how, except to say that Shaw, an ardent feminist sympathizer, would have pitched about 38 cookies at the thought of it.
Not so for my literacy wonk, who'd smugly take satisfaction in Eliza's current fate. Then again, she had a seriously hard time looking us in the eye during her lecture. And that was just as well.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of March 4. My Fair Lady runs through April 23 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. $26-$29. 619-337-1525.
Suds: The Rockin' '60s Soap Opera Musical broke box-office records at The Old Globe and The San Diego Rep some years back, and it enjoyed a nice run in 2003 at the Sycuan Showcase Theatre. That's 'cause we're all getting older, yo-and any show that spins 49 hits from the definitive 20th-century American decade can't be all bad.
If you move fast, you can catch a well-intentioned small-scale production at Grossmont College. The story, about lovelorn laundry worker Cindy (Marla Worm) and her coming of age, is nothing special-but the nationally acclaimed show got its start in San Diego, and there's all that music to boot (no Kinks, sorry to say).
Suds: The Rockin' '60s Soap Opera Musical runs through March 11 at the Stagehouse Theatre, 8800 Grossmont College Blvd., El Cajon. $10. 619-644-7234.