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Alley's Pygmalion Gets Shaw Right

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The set-up: Meeting ragged guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle (Elizabeth Bunch) who sells violets outside Covent Garden and wails in "kerbstone English," phonics professor Henry Higgins (Todd Waite) bets his confidante Col. Pickering (James Black) that he can pass her off as a duchess within three months. All upward mobility needs is the right accent. The experiment is on.

The execution: Shaw's most convivial play (he subtitled it a "Romance in Five Acts"), Pygmalion takes on class consciousness with a breezy attitude and romantic comedy with an icy stare. Higgins triumphs in passing off Eliza as a duchess, but, to his surprise, he's radically changed the rest of her. "What am I to do now?" she pleads in well-rounded, plummy tones. She knows too much to go back to her former life, but she's ill-prepared for a future one. Higgins wants her to return "as a daughter," to marry Pickering, or just "for the fun of it." She wants something more.

We long for these opposites to attract. As she walks out of his life, Higgins remains obdurate and smug, implying that Eliza will come back. It's one of theater's most perplexing endings, but it remains true to Higgins' nature and the new Eliza (and what we know of Shaw and his endless, platonic love affairs).

Waite is appropriately priggy and self-satisfied as Higgins, with that cool scientific detachment that Shavian heroes inevitably possess; and Bunch turns from "bilious pigeon," cawing those famous Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-oos!, to radiant swan, to free-thinking, independent woman. From the beginning, as she's hawking her violets in the rain, she's got us smack in the palm of her soon-to-be elegant hand. John Tyson greases Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's dad, "the undeserving poor," with plenty of snake oil charm to ease his upward climb into the middle class. He goes kicking all the way.

The verdict: In this plush Edwardian world directed by Anders Cato with understated style, Shaw gets his due, Eliza gets self-respect, Higgins gets a comeuppance, and we get a glorious evening in the theater. We hardly miss that bloody music!

Through June 12. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713-228-8421. $21-$70.

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