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I’ve always been fascinated by sources of artistic inspiration. What triggered Hamlet, say, or The Iliad? What alchemy transformed ambient noise into Don Giovanni? Was it something writ large: a sign in the sky, a real or imagined muse? How about something psychobiological: congeries of chemicals marauding defenseless synapses in the right brain? Or merely, as Dickens says, “an undigested bit of beef”?

Read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and you hear stately, cadenced sentences and acerbic wit. You hear Professor Henry Higgins lecturing about phonetics and social class in curmudgeonly tones and Fabian Society entitlement. But when you read the play, do you hear “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” or “I Could Have Danced All Night”?

And not just the unforgettable melodies. In the text, do you hear that speed, that bounce, that feathery music-hall lightness in “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”? Lerner and Loewe were lucky in one sense: they had a familiar, well-shaped story to work from (they grafted chunks of Shaw’s dialogue into the libretto). But still, how did they make the leap from point A to point B, when most of us struggle to get from point A to Point Loma?

Plus, Lerner and Loewe took a major risk for musicals: they kept Shaw’s lectures! Henry waxes didactic at 27A Wimpole Street, and in detail. After the original opening on March 15, 1956, an amazed Brooks Atkinson wrote in his review, “Probably for the first time in history a typical musical comedy audience finds itself absorbed in the art of pronunciation and passionately involved in the proper speaking of ‘pain,’ ‘rain,’ and ‘Spain.’ ”

When you watch a good production of My Fair Lady — and Starlight Musical Theatre’s got one — you hear the great songs and literate speech, but there’s another kind of music as well. Along with the various accents, from clipped Brahmin Ascot to the dropped H’s of Lisson Grove, the cast shouts so many oohs and ahs and cor-blimies you’d think you were watching the Beer Pong Championship of the British Isles. Among the many strengths of Starlight’s current staging are the characters’ spontaneous exclamations. These nonverbal curlicues arc, like sudden rainbows, and become a leitmotif running throughout the Carlos Mendoza–directed show.

The production always feels sure-handed. If an upstaging jet blasts overhead during a song, the singer keeps going — Lerner and Loewe will take no back seat to air traffic! If it happens during a speech, the cast doesn’t freeze; they adopt expressive Pageant of the Masters poses, as if in defiance of silver-bellied interlopers.

The show’s real strength is the leads. Norman Large plays Professor Higgins big, but not grandiose. He sings with clear, pointed tones and drenches the man in Shavian attitude (Henry’s convinced he has “the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein”) but leaves just enough room for vulnerability.

As Eliza, Jennifer Boswell runs the vocal gamut from “Just yew woit, ’enery ’iggins” to “Without You” and does it beautifully. Red-faced Stephen R. Reynolds is always fun as Alfred P. Dolittle, especially when he becomes “respek-able.” And Chanlon Jay Kaufman, who plays smitten Freddy Eynsford-Hill, has a narrow aperture. Like an Olympic athlete, he’s got one chance to star, in this case one song. And when Kaufman sings “On the Street Where You Live,” he grabs the gold.

* * *

Priscilla Allen, one of San Diego’s most beloved actors, passed away last week, after having battled cancer for 12 years.

Millions will remember her as the large lady in Total Recall. Wearing an earth-toned outfit, she’s a disguise to get Arnold Schwarzenegger through customs on Mars. She keeps repeating, “Two weeks.” Then her head splits apart and out pops Ah-nolt.

To those who knew and loved her work, that cameo ranks among the least of her efforts. Among her favorites: Mrs. Peacham in the Old Globe’s Threepenny Opera; Mrs. Wall, the piano-player in the San Diego Rep’s Holy Ghosts, which went to New York, where she garnered high praise from reviewers; and the ribald hooker in the Rep’s Red Noses. I dramaturged that show and was always amazed at how focused she was during rehearsals — every new choice felt definite — and how giving; and what a prankster she’d become when the cast took ten. She could be Shakespearean literate or Red Noses bawdy (I wish she could have played Chaucer’s Wife of Bath). When the casting guru, Michael Shurtleff, watched her perform, he exclaimed, “The talent of this woman is unbelievable!”

Born in Buffalo, in 1938, but raised in San Diego (a graduate of La Jolla High with a B.A. and master’s from SDSU), Priscilla taught at the School of Creative and Performing Arts, Point Loma High, and Mesa College. She loved the theater and her three daughters: Jennifer, Meredith, and Hilary. And, a testament to her talent and personality, she performed with every company in town. She was the A on their A-list.

There will be a memorial for Priscilla Allen at the Lyceum Theatre on Thursday, August 21, beginning at noon.

My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, based on Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw
Starlight Musical Theatre, South Pan American Plaza, Balboa Park
Directed and choreographed by Carlos Mendoza; cast: Norman Large, Jennifer Boswell, Stephen Reynolds, Chanlon Jay Kaufman, Danny Campbell, Lance Arthur Smith, M. Susan Peck; scenic design, Musical Theatre West; costumer, Tanya Bishop; lighting, Jason Bieber; sound, Steve Stopper and the Stopper Group; musical director and conductor, Parmer Fuller; plane spotter, Alexandra Olson
Playing through August 31; Thursday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. 619-544-7800.

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Comments

Michael Hemmingson Aug. 23, 2008 @ 1:23 p.m.

San Diego theater has lost much with the passing of the very talented and kind Priscilla Allen.

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3KITMOM Aug. 20, 2008 @ 7:06 p.m.

I was privileged to take in a preview performance of "My Fair Lady," and loved it. Superlative performances from all the top actors, and with exceptional voices. I especially enjoyed watching Chanlon Jay Kaufman, as Freddy Eynsford-Hill; he was so special, and what a marvelous voice. Major wow! I'd go again!

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