Review: Higgins in Harlem

“Use your words.”

“Use your words.”

Photo courtesy of Celebration Arts Theatre

Higgins in Harlem, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; $8-$15. Celebration Arts, 4469 D Street; (916) 455-2787; Through August 7.
Rated 5.0

George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion moves to New York—Harlem, to be exact—in Lawrence Thelen’s delightful, insightful Higgins in Harlem. Eliza Doolittle is no Cockney street urchin here, but like Eliza, her speech is less than standard.

It’s 1938 and this Eliza (perfectly realized by Missira Ross) is a homeless Harlem girl whose speech is nearly unintelligible. When phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Tory Scroggins, nicely suited—and perfectly suited to the role) bets fellow linguist Conrad Pickering (Romann Hodge, well-cast) that within six months under his tutelage, he can pass the girl off as a university-educated African princess.

The plot pretty much follows the original, although it’s funnier than I remember Pygmalion being. The play’s time period coincides with the Harlem Renaissance, and the setting provided Thelen real-life inspiration for the social and gender advances he explores.

Ancillary characters populate the family created in this world. Led by the hilarious Coleman Daniel as Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle, they include: Tarig Elsiddig, funny as the flirtatious fumbler Freddie Hill; Debbie Reeves and Christina Carter as Freddie’s mother and sister, respectively; KT Masala as Mrs. Pearce; and Diana Cossey as Henry’s mother.

When Higgins succeeds in his experiment, he congratulates himself as the greatest teacher ever, but what about his student? That’s something the protagonists and the audience are left to ponder.

Director James Wheatley expertly moves all concerned to a fitting, wistful conclusion, bittersweet but satisfying.