Bonnie Monte's new mounting of "Pygmalion" at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey is fresh, attractive and spirited. Bernard Shaw's 90-year-old social satire about a cockney lass and a pompous phonetics expert is, of course, most familiar to audiences as the basis for "My Fair Lady." But even sans songs, the play is a gleeful comic spree.
Bonnie Monte’s faithful new mounting of “Pygmalion” at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey is fresh, attractive and spirited. Bernard Shaw’s 90-year-old social satire about a cockney lass and a pompous phonetics expert is, of course, most familiar to audiences as the basis for “My Fair Lady.” It’s impossible not to hear the grand Lerner and Loewe songs spinning in your brain. But even sans songs, the play is a gleeful comic spree.Monte has found a wonderful Eliza Doolittle in Victoria Mack, a last-minute replacement, as the scruffy flower girl. As Shaw’s gutter-snipe, Mack is a appealing and very funny. When transformed into a bogus duchess, she is divinely well poised and elegant. Her feisty performance suggests that Eliza and Higgins are simply playing a wonderful game. Paul Niebanck is a formidable Higgins, who grumbles with the right brittle pomposity, although the performance is a bit forced at times. I would have preferred a hint of warmth beneath his obnoxious veneer. The plum supporting roles are well played. Peggy Scott, as the no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, lays down the law with such iron-fisted authority that we know Eliza has a caring protector. The Colonel Pickering of Joseph Costa is Eliza’s crisply considerate ally, and he wisely avoids the tendency to clown the role. Mrs. Higgins is acted by Elizabeth Shepherd with stately aristocratic grace and a knowing twinkle in her eye. Jim Mohr is the gruffly forthright spokesman for “middle class morality” as Eliza’s irascible father, Alfred Doolitte. The sulky Clara Eynsford-Hill of Mandy Olsen is a tad too shrill, and Steve Wilson’s broadly acted Freddy is so properly silly and brainless that the Alan Jay Lerner’s postscript — “Marry Freddy? Ha!” — seems most appropriate. Monte has staged the comedy with an accent on elegance and laughter. Under her guidance Shaw’s brittle humor hits the mark. The sets by Charles T. Wittreich Jr., from a Covent Garden portico to Higgins’ Wimpole Street laboratory to the elegant drawing room of Mrs. Higgins, boast flavorful atmosphere. Karen A. Ledger’s fashionable costumes are an eyeful.