When watching "Pygmalion," it's never easy to get "My Fair Lady" our of your head. Alan Jay Lerner took his lyrical ideas right from the George Bernard Shaw verbiage in most instances, which is not atypical, but when you hear Henry Higgins tell Eliza Doolittle that he's "grown accustomed" to her "voice and appearance," or when the Cockney flower girl starts to splutter with rage at her self-interested mentor, songs start to play in the back of your skull.
Normally, one can bat them back. The musical deserves its reputation, but romantic obsessions in "My Fair Lady" necessarily blunted some of the sharp Shavian analysis on the perennially potent question as to what really separates a flower girl with "curbstone language that will keep her in the gutter" from a real lady. "Pygmalion," the 1912 play, makes a far better case than the musical that it is a question not so much of what she says or does, but of how she is treated.
And it is ever thus.
Alas, in the new "Pygmalion" co-production by the Stage Left Theatre and BoHo Theatre, Steve O'Connell's Professor Higgins has a habit of whistling ditties from "My Fair Lady" under his breath, a cutesy, anachronistic distraction that is one of the relatively few missteps in what is otherwise quite an entertaining and forthright production from director Vance Smith that brings a certain freshness and insouciance to this familiar, but invariably enjoyable, play. It is by no means a traditional look at Shaw, but it has its moments.
Most of that flows from a very engaging and compelling performance by Mouzam Makkar, an atypical Eliza who makes much here of the two extremes of the role. Her pre-Henry Eliza is a long way from Audrey Hepburn with a few smudges of soot on her face: Makkar forges quite the feral creature, wallowing around on the floor of the back theater at Theater Wit, before, in total contrast, transforming her famous character into an woman newly educated in the inequities of the world who has acquired a withering intellectual bite and far less softness than is typical. If Makkar's Eliza feels anything at all for Henry, you would not know. And, frankly, that's an approach that works.
O'Connell is also not without interest: He finds the requisite note of peevish brooding, and his work aptly notes the immaturity of his self-serving man, a childishness that upper-class English privilege indulged and, indeed, still indulges. But he doesn't fully manifest the truth that Higgins actually has a far longer journey to travel than Eliza; there are missing moments of self-realization, even if this young actor actually has created a very believable character, who often is played too old.
Not all the supporting characters are ideally cast, and some of the dialect work is uneven, but there is some lively stuff from the likes of Mark Pracht, who makes a blustery Mr. Doolittle; Charles Riffenburg, who plays Freddy; Rebecca Mauldin, a funny Clara; and Lisa Herceg, a youthful but aptly caustic Mrs. Higgins.
By combining resources, these two small Chicago theater companies have been able to afford more expansive production values than is typical, and the costume design here, by Theresa Ham, is very notable. Ham uses the ethnic heritage of her lead actress to forge an array of beautiful gowns that feel both like something those old foxes Higgins and Colonel Pickering (Sandy Elias) would have liked to see Eliza wear and, at the same time, attire that prefigures the eventual changes in Britain that would turn them into impotent dinosaurs.
When Smith's "Pygmalion," which has many of the right ideas, is clearing that kind of path, it feels fresh and vital. One wishes it had gone further and cleared away more of the familiar undergrowth surrounding a piece of writing always best when it lands somewhere close to the street where you live.
When: Through Feb. 10
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org