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Stage Review

Playhouse on Park's 'Higgins in Harlem' Shows Promise

Adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion' Set During Harlem Renaissance

By FRANK RIZZO, frizzo@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

March 11, 2014

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The show: "Higgins in Harlem" at West Hartford's Playhouse on Park.

What makes it special?: It's a world premiere of an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," set during the Harlem Renaissance, by Lawrence Thelen

First impressions: Shaw's play on class and language finds a new home in another country, context and time and it's a surprisingly fine fit. The script still needs work but this premiere shows much promise with this Harlem twist. Shaw's ideas are bracing, his comedy is sharp and the various parallels are intriguing and entertaining. Geri-Nikole Love makes a feisty, elegant and touching Eliza but Kevyn Morrow's Higgins is too full of rage and contempt for this fair lady to care about, much less an audience.

But isn't he's a bit of a linguistic bully?: Yes, but there has to be some flicker of charm or comic vanity or something that the audience can latch onto to keep from simply loathing his misogyny, manners and muscle. He's not a brute, just oblivious to the feelings of others around him. After all, as he says, it's not that he treats Eliza worse than anyone else, it's that he treats everyone else no better. But here he is portrayed as relentlessly unhinged in his fanaticism.

But there's a dicier challenge with the script.

Which is...?: It never digs deep into the linguistic, class and race issues this version suggests ever so lightly. In fact, it seems to be holding back from fully embracing its concept. The switch from London to Harlem is mostly surface, sufficing itself to name-dropping names and places and the occasional period phrase and musical cue for atmosphere. The show pretty much rides fully on Shaw's coattails without striking out of its own, which could have made things very interesting. But this is really "Pygmalion" with just modest changes —- though it still provides pleasures along the way.

What do they do for "The rain in Spain...?" scene?: That marvelous moment when Eliza has her linguistic break-through cleverly uses another broad-"A" phrase suitable for the setting. But this adaptation oddly drops some of Shaw's funniest bits that leads up to that epiphany, missing not just the humor but the build. But Love is charming throughout, even when she is full of sass and grit.

And others in the cast?: Bob Johnson is especially fine as Pickering, and Xenia Gray as Mrs. Pearce, Joshua Ramos as Freddie, Vanessa Butler as Clara Hill and Aurtelia Clunie as Mrs. Hill all do well, too. Jeffrey Cousar, though young for the role, has some funny low down moments as Alfred Doolittle.

Who will like it?: Some Shavian fans.

Who won't?: Other Shavian fans. Those who only like the musical version with its ersatz happy ending.

For the kids?: Older teens might be amused.

Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Entertaining, though uneven, production —- but needs to be as daring as the original if it hopes to be more than a slight novelty.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Broadway Revival of "My Fair Lady" anymore? I'd cast David Hyde Pierce as Higgins And Lauren Worsham (from "Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder") as Eliza.

The basics: The play runs through March 23 at the theater on 244 Park Road in West Hartford. Running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes, including one intermission. Information at www.playhouseopark.org and 860-523-5900, Ext.10.