DECATUR — A flower girl in Victorian England isn’t known for colorful, elaborate gowns or sophisticated speaking. Eliza Doolittle's clothing is dirty and torn as she sells flowers along the street, and her language an easy giveaway if there was any doubt about her lowly station in society.
“She is a little rough around the edges,” said Heather Kaloupek, who plays Eliza Doolittle. “She is a little dirty.”
But that changes on a bet.
Eliza Doolittle is the main character in “My Fair Lady.” Decatur Underground Theatre will present the classic musical Friday through Sunday and Nov. 17-19, in the Decatur Civic Center Theater.
The story follows the lowly woman with not much to offer and two pompous gentlemen who make a wager that she can be turned into someone who can fool others as a genteel, upper-class woman, royalty even.
“It has nothing to do with Eliza,” said Dillon Bethard, who plays Professor Henry Higgins. “We just wanted to see how big our egos are.”
Eliza has nothing to offer the men and is unwittingly ensnared by their challenge.
“You’ll be the best teacher alive if you can win this bet,” actor Ryle Frey said as Colonel Pickering, poking at Higgins' ego.
The musical "My Fair Lady" was written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, based on the play "Pygmalion," written by George Bernard Shaw, and first appeared on stage in 1956. The musical has memorable songs such as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “The Rain in Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
The British dialects are challenging for the actors, but the directors were able provide tips and feedback about proper English, Cockney and Welsh during auditions.
“Shape the vowels this way or make sure you are dropping these consonants,” director Mitchell Yaksh told the actors.
Yaksh said the audience may not know specific details of British dialects, but he wants the play to have the important details that make the story what it is. “It will affect the show and will help display the wide range of accents we can bring as a cast,” he said.
The dialects have been a challenge for Kaloupek. She begins the show with a Cockney dialect, then changes to proper English, then goes back to Cockney. “In the beginning it was difficult,” she said. “I came out sounding Southern.”
The speaking and dialects are important, as it opens a window into Eliza's understanding of the changes she experiences.
The theater company has remained true to the story but also made the musical its own. The relationship between Higgins and Doolittle has a modern flair more in line with contemporary relationships. Yaksh studied other productions in which Higgins is a domineering man playing opposite of a fragile girl.
“He has only been rude, but she comes back to him,” Yaksh said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
For the local production, Yaksh encouraged the actress to make Eliza feistier. Higgins also shows a vulnerable and humbling side.
“And Eliza realizes her worth was never based on how she spoke or how people viewed her,” Yaksh said. “But it is really based who she was as an individual.”
The directors looked for a play with a large cast and appropriate for their audience, and said “My Fair Lady” was the ideal show.
“When we mentioned that name to people in the theater world, their eyes would just light up,” said Sandy Revis, DUT director. “And it is one that people want to be in.”
The story is also well-known, even for those who have never heard of Eliza Doolittle.
“People who know nothing about 'My Fair Lady' or musical theater will recognize the concept or the characters,” Yaksh said. “The makeover idea is something that is almost any teen movie.”