Jo Grabow’s first role after she moved to San Antonio in 1991 was Mrs. Higgings in the San Pedro Playhouse’s production of the iconic musical “My Fair Lady.” And now, she is revisiting Mrs. Higgins for the fourth time, this time at the Roxie Theater in a show directed by Jonathan Pennington.
“It’s a good feeling to be playing her again,” said the veteran actress who has appeared in many plays over the years. “It’s an enjoyable role. She is a very proper English lady but she also has a fine sense of humor. When I first portrayed her, I did not quite catch the humor.”
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” the 1956 musical follows the story of a young Cockney flower seller named Eliza Doolittle, who takes language and manners lessons from phonetics expert Henry Higgins for whom she represents an experiment. He’s convinced that he can transform her into a lady. When he succeeds, their relationship becomes more complex.
With memorable songs by Frederick Loewe, the musical became a huge success and continues to be revived both on Broadway and across the country. For Pennington, “My Fair Lady” represents a departure from more contemporary fare that he seems to prefer.
“I have done 147 shows in the past 12 years and at this point, I wanted to go back and take a look at the classics,” explained the director. “I still remember how much my mom, who worked three jobs to support us, loved that show. I remember her talking about it. So, I also wanted to do something that my mom would enjoy and that would be a challenge for me.”
However, he is putting his own twist on the beloved classic. For one thing, the Roxie’s limited space required certain accommodations in terms of big dance scenes, but Pennington has also opted for color-blind casting and has invited the actors to participate in the development of their characters. In addition, he has cast two actresses to play Eliza – Alaia Brown and Kelly Powers. Though this was a necessity due to Brown’s other commitments, he’s pleased with the result. Each actress has put her own stamp on the part.
Music director Tom Masinter agrees. “Both impart a beautiful vocal quality to the role but they are different. Alaia has a classically trained voice while Kelly’s is more pop-sound. I want to see the show twice to see both of them,” he said.
Grabow who portrays Henry’s witty mother, is at ease with both Eliza’s. “Alaia is intuitive and she has brought to the role some very sweet touches, a little cocky,” noted Grabow. “Kelly is more elegant and she has always wanted to perform this role.”
As for her own part, Grabow only needs to slip into her costume and speak in her own British English (she is from England) to be ready for the stage. And she never gets tired of it. Like seemingly everyone, she loves the characters and the music.
“This is one of the timeless, iconic musicals,” she said. “Like “The King and I,” and “South Pacific,” it keeps coming back.”
ATAC Globe Award winner, Sean Salazar, portrays Prof. Higgins, and Dwight Robinson is Eliza’s feisty father Alfred P. Doolittle. The mother-daughter duo, Pat and Angelique Paccione, created the all-original choreography. “It’s a completely new, fresh approach to the show,” said Pennington. “I didn’t even want to see the revival on Broadway (to avoid being influenced in any way). But if the writers could be in the audience. I think they would be pleased.”
_____________________________________________________________________________________”My Fair Lady” runs Fridays-Sundays through June 3, 2018. For times and tickets go to www.roxietheatre.com or call 210-360-9180.
Photo: Sean Salazar and Alaia Brown