‘My Fair Lady,” the classic musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” about a Cockney flower girl who transforms into lady with the help of a phonetics professor, asks an important question: Is it the proper English accent and the pretty hat that make Eliza Doolittle a lady?
I decided to find out, with the help of Good Company Players, which opens a new production of “My Fair Lady” Thursday, July 21, at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.
I meet with Breanne Gallagher, the actor playing Eliza, and Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed, Good Company’s costume designer.
Gallagher, who just moved to Fresno and is starring in her first show with GCP, talks about Eliza Doolittle with authority, almost as if she were describing her close friend.
Between the dress being narrow at the bottom and the hat having to stay on my head at the tilt it’s designed, I have no choice but to walk the way as I should as that character.
Breanne Gallagher, Eliza Doolittle in Good Company Players’ ‘My Fair Lady’
And Lewis-Reed has designed costumes for Good Company Players for more than 30 years. She has made sure every version of “My Fair Lady” has unique costuming.
Inside the Good Company Player’s costume shop in the Tower District, which bursts with costumes representing all eras, Lewis-Reed brings out a brown hat laden with pink flowers and trim with a brim three times the size of my head, eases it onto my head and lets go slowly.
I’ll be the first to admit my British accent is subpar, but the hat alone works wonders. To balance the added weight on my head, I have to lift my chest, roll my shoulders back and raise my chin. In seconds – and without saying an accented word – I had the demeanor of a young lady in high society. Then, Lewis-Reed drapes a soft stole around my neck, which I, rather ridiculously, adopt as an extension of my arms. With just these two items, I feel more poised and graceful.
“It turns you into a lady, instantly,” Lewis-Reed says. “And the Brits, it’s all about the hats. They still do that. They’re works of art. It started a long time ago and continues to this day.”
Gallagher’s character undergoes a significant change, which the outfits help facilitate.
“The hat actually makes you have great posture because of the weight, the angle, the space it takes up,” she says. “You have to walk upright, you have to have great posture and it does make the transition from a character’s standpoint that much easier. You feel like you’re that person coming into the horse races.”
Dresses are likewise engineered for specific movements. Lewis-Reed narrowed the dresses at the bottom so the actors have to take tiny steps, or hobble – the style of walking considered fashionable in late Edwardian times.
“Between the dress being narrow at the bottom and the hat having to stay on my head at the tilt it’s designed, I have no choice but to walk the way as I should as that character,” Gallagher says.
The show is set in 1912, but in some ways, it’s just as relevant and present in 2016.
From a societal view, the lessons and the wardrobe change Eliza’s identity because society needs her to have the tools of language, dress and finances to show that she’s a lady in a flower shop as opposed to a common girl selling flowers.
Luckily, the accessories don’t swallow her personality. Her sense of self is consistent from beginning to end.
“Who she is as a person, her feistiness and her passion for continuing to improve herself, I think that’s consistent from beginning to end and you’ll see that in her character,” Gallagher says. “She’s a spitfire and she’s likeable in that way.”
In late Edwardian society, just like today, the accessories’ primary function is being a social cue for people, giving them basic information on how they should be treated.
“The show is set in 1912, but in some ways, it’s just as relevant and present in 2016,” Gallagher says. “We still judge people based on their appearance and where we think they fall in society.”
In other words, the ultimate transformation in “My Fair Lady” isn’t Eliza’s, but that of how others treat her.
My Fair Lady
- July 21 through Sept. 11, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Dinner begins at 5:30 p.m. with pre-show at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday brunch begins at 11 a.m. with pre-show at 1 p.m.
- Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave. in Fresno
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-9494
- $32 to $59