Lady is Fair and equal

Story by Casey Lessard

Being able to notice subtle details is the key to appreciating My Fair Lady, Huron Country Playhouse’s 2008 season opener, playing until June 21. The musical follows the progress of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney street flower girl, as linguist Henry Higgins takes up Colonel Pickering’s challenge to prove that class status can be modified by modifying a person’s accent.
Most obviously, viewers will notice the subtle progression in Mairi Babb’s Eliza Doolittle’s Cockney accent as it transitions to a more refined upper-class accent.
“The trick is to make the subtle changes so it’s not just overnight,” Babb says. “By The Rain in Spain, she has a little bit of class and a little bit of put-togetherness. You have to be able to do both accents really well.”
Babb pulls it off well, and her accent progresses appropriately.
“I was born in England, so I did have an accent until I was five,” Babb says. “My mom and I moved to Canada, so I had to get rid of it pretty quickly. But I’ve had to do it in other shows. Actors learn accents through CDs and dialect coaches. Every dialect has a different placement in the mouth.”
Babb also has to walk the walk, modifying her physical behaviour as much as her voice.
“She has a very much Cockney walk, she has her legs apart, but I try to bring them closer together every time she sits subsequently.”
At first, it seems there is nothing subtle about Henry Higgins, played by Douglas E. Hughes.
“I’d describe him as a monomaniac,” Hughes says. “There’s a clue in one of the first things he says when he talks about phonetics, he says, that’s my profession, and also my hobby. Anybody whose profession is also their hobby, it screams, Buddy, get a life. He doesn’t have anything outside of that.”
Then Eliza comes into his life, and challenges him to realize he must have feelings and relate to a person as something other than a laboratory rat for his research.
“He ends up being the person he believes he is at the beginning of the play,” Hughes says, “and she makes that happen.”
While the actors are excellent, and perform well, Stratford veteran Keith Dinicol says it’s an easy job when the text is great.
“When you’re dealing with the words of a great playwright like George Bernard Shaw,” Dinicol says, “you’re in pretty good hands. It’s so well written, the lyrics are so good, the melodies are good. If you follow the instructions of what’s on the page, you’re okay.”
That said, the performers still need to shine, and Playhouse newcomer Sheldon Bergstrom steals the stage when he comes on. Large and imposing, Bergstrom is light on his feet and brings a smile to faces throughout the auditorium.
“We have so much fun together that you feel it on stage. It’s important to have fun and hope the audience is willing to go along for the ride.”
Still, there’s an important lesson about the male-female relationship in this story, which transcends its time to show the value of equality.
“I don’t think we’ve given (the audience) a love story,” Babb says. “We’ve given them something more equal and challenging than a love story. (Director Susan Ferley) wanted to show we were equals and we were going forward. There is no concession given.”
“In Pygmalion,” Hughes notes, “Eliza leaves with Freddy, but maintains a connection with Higgins and Pickering. All we see at the end of this play is that she comes back. It’s up to the audience to decide what happens after this.”
To figure out what happens, get a seat at this show by calling 519-238-6000 or visiting My Fair Lady runs until June 21.