‘My Fair Lady’ comes to Pinckney

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“He’s a self-proclaimed ‘ordinary man who lives exactly as he likes and does precisely what he wants,’ though he does have a tendency to run home to his mother when things don’t go his way.”

And just who are we describing here? Henry Higgins, of course, the main character in the classic musical, My Fair Lady, and everyone’s favorite grouch. This immensely popular show will be presented September 18-26 by the Pinckney Players with performances at the Jane Tasch Theatre so we will all have the opportunity to revisit this delightful show and see the wickedly loveable snob, Henry Higgins, in action.

The story is familiar to just about everyone. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s late nineteenth century play, Pygmalion, it concerns Eliza Doolittle, the scruffy little Cockney flower girl, unpolished and a bit rough around the edges, who is transformed into a “lidy” by the brilliant but crotchety phonetics professor, Henry Higgins, as a result of a bet he has with his friend, Col. Pickering. His fellow linguist challenges Higgins to “metamorphose the guttersnipe into a paragon of verbal correctitude.”………….which Higgins does all too well. They celebrate their triumph in the joyful Latin song, “The Rain in Spain.”

Complications occur however when Higgins tries to pass the transformed Eliza, with her newly-acquired proper English, stunning dress and hairdo, as an aristocrat at the Ascot Races and later at the Embassy Ball.

Eliza succeeds beyond anyone’s expectations, but Higgins and Pickering take full credit for her transformation, with no regard for Eliza’s personal accomplishments.  The newly independent Eliza walks out on the arrogant Higgins. He begins to realize that he’s “Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and faces a bleak and lonely existence without her. In the final scene as the disheartened but chastened Higgins slumps in his chair, a shadow appears in the doorway. He realizes that she has returned and with a long, contented sigh, says softly, “Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?”

With a book and score by the legendary Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the musical is studded with famous songs such as “Get Me to the Church on Time,” “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?”, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and many more.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Dirk Brandt, the local actor who is playing Henry Higgins, about his experience in creating this iconic character.

What techniques did you use to get into the character of Henry Higgins?

“The first thing I did was get in touch with my inner curmudgeon, which, if you ask my wife, should have been the easy part.” His preparation included watching the famous film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison several times, and listening to various CD versions of the show.

“After that I started reading through the script and looking for places to make the character my own. I didn’t want to stray too far from the film version, since this is the Henry Higgins most people know.  My goal was to become familiar with the rhythm and melody of Rex Harrison’s interpretation.”

How would you describe Henry Higgins?

“On the outside, he appears cold and unfeeling, with few if any social skills. But as he spends time with Eliza and begins to open up to her, the values and beliefs that he lives by become apparent, and you begin to see why he behaves the way he does.” Higgins firmly subscribes to the British class system whereby one’s use of the English language dictates one’s status in life. “Why, in America they haven’t spoken it in years!” declares the elitist Higgins.

According to Brandt, the scene which is most revealing of Higgins’ inner self, when his crusty exterior begins to crack, is the scene with Eliza near the end of the play, in his mother’s garden. Eliza has left him and suddenly he is all at sea with the strong feelings he realizes he has for her. “This was the most difficult scene for me to play as it shows that he is really human after all. The most challenging part for me was maintaining the balance between his aloofness and his growing feeling for Eliza. Constantly bouncing back and forth between Henry’s soft and egotistical sides required a lot of focus and concentration.”

How did you approach working on his very proper British dialect?

“Four words: Paul Meier Dialect Services. I was first exposed to Meier’s dialect books and tapes back in 1999 when I played the role of Freddy Einsford-Hill in a previous production of My Fair Lady. The entire cast was grateful to have these materials for help with the various dialects required by this show.”

What is your favorite song in the show?

“I really don’t have a favorite song although ‘Ordinary Man’ and ‘Hymn to Him’ are a lot of fun to perform. Where else would I have the opportunity to disparage the opposite sex in public without repercussion?” Great fun!

What are some of your favorite past stage roles?

“The two roles that really stand out in my mind are the ones where I shared the stage with my two sons. Dr. Grimwig in Oliver! in which my son, Christopher, played the title role, and Rev. Sprague in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which featured my other son, Justin, in that title role. I really enjoyed sharing the stage with my family.”

If you could play any role in all of the dramatic literature that’s out there, what role would you choose and why?

“Up to this point, the two roles I have coveted are Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady and Harold Hill in The Music Man. I have this handkerchief monogrammed with HH that I’ve been dying to use….. Seriously though, both of these characters have qualities that I see in myself, which makes it easier for me to step into their shoes. The speak-singing nature of their songs also appeals to me. Not that it makes it any easier, mind you. I spent more time working on the songs in My Fair Lady than any other musical I’ve been in. But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

Brandt recently played one of the barbershop quartet members in a Community Theatre of Howell production of The Music Man, but wasn’t quite able to use his HH hanky. Happily, he can sport the treasured hanky for this production.

My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1955, went on to win numerous awards including six Tonys, and played in New York and London for several years. There have been numerous revivals, one of them in the mid-eighties starring Rex Harrison in his most famous role. I was fortunate enough to have seen this production in Chicago, with an aging but still thoroughly captivating Harrison in the lead role. This remains one of the highlights of my theatre-going life, along with seeing Yul Brynner in The King and I shortly before he passed away, and seeing Richard Burton as King Arthur in Camelot.

The Pinckney Players production of My Fair Lady is directed by Brad Rondeau, with Heidi Miles as Assistant Director, Stephanie Heslip as Producer, Marlene Inman Reilly as Musical Director, and Jill Quagliata as Conductor.

Others in the cast include Lis Burton as Eliza, Gary Thames as Pickering, Brad Vincent as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, Josh Weiland as Freddy, Julie Glair as Mrs. Pierce, Kate Murphy as Mrs. Higgins, Stephanie Heslip as Mrs. Einsford-Hill, Bryan Walton as Jamie, Sean Heslip as Harry, and Steve Kuschel as Zoltan Karpathy. They are joined by a large ensemble of adults and children.

Performances are September 18-26, with Saturday curtain times at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday curtain times at 2 p.m. at the Jane Tasch Theatre in Pinckney, M-36 and McGregor. Ticket prices are $16.00 for adults and $14.00 for students and seniors ($2.00 more at the door). Tickets are available online at www.pinckneyplayers.com or at Brighton Tux in Brighton, Busch’s Valu-Land in Pinckney, and at the Pinckney Community Education office at Pathfinder school.

We hope to see all of you down in Pinckney for what promises to be a rousing and fun production of this treasured musical. And we’ll be looking for that famous HH handkerchief making its stage debut.

Vera Cunningham blogs about theater for Livingstontalk.com.