There are two reasons to see the world premiere of Higgins in Harlem—Kevyn Morrow as the incorrigible, self-absorbed Henry Higgins and Janelle A. Robinson as his sassy, no-nonsense mother. The two seasoned performers provide a healthy degree of professionalism to an uneven production.
The show, an African-American version of Pygmalion, transports the locale to Harlem, circa 1938. Those familiar with the source material or, more likely, the Lerner and Loewe musical of the show, My Fair Lady, will know the storyline. Professor Henry Higgins, a linguistic specialist and teacher, scoops up a street-smart, mouthy, inerudite young woman, Eliza Doolittle (Geri-Nikole Love), and, through a bet with his colleague, Colonel Pickering (Bob Johnson), vows to transform her into a well-mannered, perfectly speaking African princess within six months. Through fits and starts the duo succeeds, but not without pain for their subject as Eliza’s metamorphosis is simply viewed as a grand experiment. Higgins and Pickering seem to have very little outward feelings for her and have no plans for her when their deadline arrives, leaving the now beautiful and polished young woman without a future. She could marry Freddie Hill (Joshua Ramos), who has fallen heads-over-heels for her, strike out on her own, or even move in with her now respectable father (Jeffrey Cousar), a former street person who, through a twist of the plot, is now very well off. As the lights dim, we are left to ponder what might happen.
Writer/Director Lawrence Thelen presents an interesting twist on George Bernard Shaw’s classic tale, but there are problems. There is no chemistry between the two protagonists which, in the least, should have some spark. A few scenes, more to the quality of the acting, seem overlong. I would have also like to have seen more scenes that delved into the mechanics of teaching Eliza. There is one unsatisfying pantomime and a variation of “The Rain in Spain” being substituted for “Take the A Train.” The show takes place in Harlem, but except for some name dropping and the type of taped music played between scene changes you would never know. It would seem if the play is being promoted as being in a certain time period and location you would stress this fact. As written it seems too much like just an African-American version of Pygmalion. Even though Thelen has extensive directing experience it might have been better to have a different set of eyes and ears helming the production.
Kevyn Morrow is headstrong and slightly more off-putting then necessary as the language expert. But he is focused and a dynamic personality when on stage. Janelle A. Robinson is the other bright spot in the play, giving a straightforward, classy performance as Higgins’ mother. Geri-Nikole Love, as Eliza, undergoes a convincing transformation from the periphery of society to its very heights. She is beautiful, poised and, by the end of the show, strong-willed, yet melancholy. Bob Johnson is rather one-dimensional as Higgins’ ally Colonel Pickering. Jeffrey Cousar is a whirling dervish of energy during his few appearances as Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle. A bit more restraint could have been in order. Xenia Gray is quietly strong as the reliable maid, Mrs. Pearce.
Higgins in Harlem, at Playhouse on Park through March 23rd.