Performance Review: Professor Henry Higgins

Part 2 of “Charlie and the Magical History Tour” (https://historyeducator.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/charlie-and-the-magical-history-tour/

If you want to read a traditional theatrical review of “My Fair Lady,” I strongly suggest reading Jeannie Waters’s blog review at the following link:  http://jeanniemwaters.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/490/, or any of the reviews published in Boston area newspapers (both print and online).  What you are about to read here is definitely not a traditional theatrical review, as it will focus upon the process by which Eliza Doolittle (Lisa O’Hare) learns proper diction through the individualized instruction provided by Professor Henry Higgins (Charles Shaughnessy).

First, a bit of background on the story:  “My Fair Lady” is a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play 1912 play “Pygmalion,” in which he attacks the British class system of the early 20th century (particularly of the Edwardian era) by having Higgins (a Phonetics professor) bet Colonel Hugh Pickering that he can transform the Cockney flower girl into a “lady.”  As such, the play itself is a lesson that reflects not just British society during this period but also demonstrates the bond that can develop between a teacher and a student during the learning/teaching process–and the impact that a teacher/professor can have on a student’s self-esteem.

I was fortunate to be able to see a performance of “My Fair Lady” at North Shore Music Theatre on the evening of Wednesday, June 15.  Charles Shaughnessy (yes, Mr. Sheffield from “The Nanny,” Shane Donovan from “Days of Our Lives,” et al.) played Henry Higgins, and, as usual, it was a masterful performance.  Just like when I saw him as King Arthur in “Spamalot” at Ogunquit Playhouse last August, he became the character…as in I really cannot picture anyone else playing Prof. Higgins after watching Charlie.  And I wasn’t alone in this perception; one woman who was sitting next to me had seen “My Fair Lady” on Broadway with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, and she told me during intermission that Lisa O’Hare was as good as Julie Andrews, but Charlie by far was superior to Rex Harrison.  She spent most of the intermission raving about the quality of the performance and about Charlie’s acting, and, I must admit, I could not dispute her perception.  The entire cast was outstanding, from Hayden Tee’s (Freddy Eynsford-Hill) rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” to Bill Dietrich’s (Alfred P. Doolittle) “Get Me to the Church on Time.”  By far, though, the stars of the show were Lisa O’Hare as Eliza Doolittle and Charles Shaughnessy as Professor Henry Higgins.  If you do not have the opportunity to see this show, you are definitely missing something.

Now, as promised, a review of the Professor’s “performance.”  As a college professor, I am quite aware of the challenges faced in teaching students who often are not receptive to learning the material (or, in my case, changing their attitudes about the importance of knowing history).  After seeing “My Fair Lady,” I did get some ideas about how I could change how I teach the material–just start singing (well, actually, that won’t work, as I can’t carry a tune).  Seriously, watching Charlie as Henry Higgins did give me a few ideas on how I can better “connect” with my students, but that is nothing new–especially since he has already helped me in that area.

Now on to the fun part–the two songs that particularly demonstrated the connection that Eliza and Professor Higgins developed during their student/teacher relationship.  The first one, “The Rain in Spain,” accompanied with Professor Higgins “I think she’s got it” epitomizes the moment when teachers see the proverbial light bulb going off that indicates students have indeed learned the information (or at least are beginning to understand it).  The second one, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” is an excellent lamentation that resembles how teachers react when students graduate…only in this case, Eliza isn’t really graduating, but she might be moving on in her life without Professor Higgins.  Charlie truly demonstrates the inner turmoil teachers (and professors) have when students move on; we don’t necessarily “miss” seeing them every day, but we occasionally do miss seeing them in the classroom (and seeing them grow from insecure freshmen to confident seniors–and, in the case of social studies education majors, into future teachers who will impact students’ lives).

A couple of final thoughts (and hopefully not spoilers for anyone who has not seen the play):  First, in Professor Higgins’s study, there is a chart (hanging from the ceiling) with phonetic symbols.  For me, that brought back fond memories of the Spanish Phonetics class I took as an undergraduate, when we had to write sentences only using the phonetic symbols.  Second–when the horses were running at Ascot, I immediately flashed back to another familiar sound of hoof beats…or, rather, the sound of horses clopping along cobblestones.  Those of you who have seen (or performed in) “Spamalot” know what I mean; my mother and I immediately looked at each other and whispered “coconuts.”

In any case, if you do not see Charles Shaughnessy portray Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” at North Shore Music Theatre, you will miss an outstanding performance.  It’s not Mr. Sheffield teaching Eliza Doolittle (although some fans of “The Nanny” will recall the episode during the first season in which they try to transform Fran).  Charlie becomes Henry Higgins, and I cannot picture anyone else in this role (and I have seen the movie with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison).  All of the reviews are quite accurate, and, in fact, they really don’t capture the high quality of this production.

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About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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8 Responses to Performance Review: Professor Henry Higgins

  1. Jeannie says:

    This is a great post with a very non-traditional approach. I learned a few things other than the fact that Charles Shaughnessy made a wonderful Henry Higgins, yet, that fact came through also. One observation that I made while watching his performance that I failed to include in my blog is that it might be the one and only time I felt like slapping Charles Shaughnessy. That is proof alone of how great of a performance he gave.

  2. Karen says:

    And I think I know when you wanted to do that…and I’m not about to disclose that information, because it definitely would be a spoiler for those who haven’t seen it.

  3. skat35 says:

    Great blog here! And i knew you would love it . So glad that you and your mom went. So wonderful that he is being compared to Rex and that people are saying that his skills perhaps even surpass him. I really enjoyed reading your take on this . The watching your students grow and go forward, There are other relationships in life with people (not always romantically) that are also wonderful. Plus, as we grow older mentoring becomes important to help out young people with our wisdom. Charles performance scared a little girl so i can understand Jeannie’s wanting to slap Charlie. I wanted to tell the little girl that Charlie would hurt Liza but felt her mom was handling situation. Interesting hearing him sing. (liked it alot) My personal fave was watching the dancing (especially Charlie) and listening to the orchestra. I so wish that all his fans could come and see him on stage. Thanks caring. Always a pleasure reading your blog and comments. Hope he wins award. Already planning next trip to see him again. Bitten by the Broadway bug. Is way better than watching him act on tv (Never thought i’d be typing that) but is true.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Roxana. I’m glad you liked the play. My mother was particularly impressed by the costumes; she has seen some “theater in the round performances” in which the costumes were clearly pinned together, and she burst out laughing with the comment about pinning Eliza’s dress.

      • skat35 says:

        Welcome I could talk about My Fair Lady all day! The costumes were terrific! Is kinda like Pretty Women but without the prostitution, They just don’t write em like they used to i guess.

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  5. Mary Wright says:

    Karen – this is one of the most enjoyable reviews of MFL I have read. I thoroughly enjoyed your analogies and I saw what you saw in the performances – first rate all the way. I posted some days ago that Charlie outshone Rex Harrison in my mind, and Lisa O’Hare sang like an angel – the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. And I so loved the “lessons” you outline. Anyway, thanks for such an overwhelmingly enjoyable review! Aren’t we lucky that we got to see it in person (and I got to see it twice!!).

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Mary! While I only got to see it once, it certainly was an enjoyable experience. My mother went with me, and she can’t stop raving about the high quality of the production (especially in costuming, singing, acting…). We had great seats; in fact, we were awfully close to where the slippers landed when Eliza threw them. And, as you can probably tell from my new gravitar, I got to see Charlie after the show (which was an added bonus).

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