Eliza’s makeover in ‘Pygmalion’ mirrors Reality TV

By Diana Saenger

The Old Globe Theatre starts the year — and its 100th anniversary production — with George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Shaw penned his romantic comedy in 1912 and named it after the mythological Pygmalion, a sculptor in Cyprus who fell in love with a statue he had carved. The play is a sharp parody of the rigid British class system of the day.

In 1938, Shaw adapted “Pygmalion” for the big screen with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. It is best known, however, as the 1956 Broadway musical “My Fair Lady,” starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews  — who was replaced by Audrey Hepburn for the 1956 film version.

Nicholas Martin directs The Globe production, which stars Tony Award-winner Robert Sean Leonard as Professor Henry Higgins, Charlotte Parry as Eliza Doolittle, Kandis Chappell as Mrs. Higgins, Don Sparks as Mr. Doolittle, Deborah Taylor as Mrs. Pearce, and Paxton Whitehead as Colonel Pickering.

The story is about a young woman who sells flowers on the streets of London and who ends up being the prop of a bet between Professor Higgins — who believes teaching her how to speak properly will change her life — and a gentleman, Colonel Pickering.

Assessing “Pygmalion” as “a brilliant play with great characters,” Parry said she has always wanted to play the role of Eliza Doolittle.

“Eliza is a sensitive, kind of put upon flower girl … but confident in her own way,” Parry said. “She makes quite the journey in this story, ending up at Higgins’ house with a dream of being a lady in a flower shop. She wants to get away from the life she’s trapped in.”

At the time the play was first written, it was viewed as an observation on female independence.

“At Higgins’s home where she’s being tutored, she grows into a sophisticated and confident young lady who realizes she has choices and even learns to stand up to Professor Higgins, who constantly puts her down,” Parry said. “At one point, she tells Higgins that the difference between a flower girl and a lady isn’t the way she behaves, but the way she’s treated.

“It’s a true rags-to-riches story, but always reminds me of the movie ‘Trading Places’ (1983 starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd) where if a poor person switches lives with a rich one, they are still the same people inside and a reflection on prejudice,” Parry said. “Today, we love watching reality TV shows and makeovers where people’s lives are transformed; it’s human nature. That’s the basis of ‘Pygmalion,’ but it’s also a really funny classic that will entertain the audience.”

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