HED:Tupelo High School students brush up their British and Cockney accents for 'My Fair Lady'
By Christopher R.C. Bosen
Tupelo High School drama teacher Debby Gibbs is passing more than just her love for theater along to the cast of "My Fair Lady."
Gibbs also passed along a little black hat with a dingy red ribbon to Audrea McMillen, 16, who plays Eliza Doolittle in the production which runs April 9 and 10 at the Tupelo Civic Auditorium.
The beat-up hat, worn by McMillen's emotionally beat-up Cockney flower girl in the Lerner and Loewe musical, is significant solely because Gibbs wore the same hat when she played Eliza in the THS band parents' 1983 production of "My Fair Lady."
Gibbs' connection to the musical doesn't stop there. In 1977 when THS presented the show with Tom Brown as Col. Pickering and Rebeccah Bush as Eliza, Gibbs served as assistant director to Ruth Liveakos.
Today, Brown is with cable network TNT where he produces and co-hosts a weekly show about the entertainment industry. Bush is currently living in California where she has her own production company and has written for both stage and screen.
Gibbs said both Brown and Bush's parents still live in Tupelo and there is a chance the THS alums will return to Northeast Mississippi to see a performance by the current "My Fair Lady" cast.
"He has already said he wants to come back and see it because since he was in it he's never seen it," Gibbs said of Brown. "He likes to keep up with what's going on in the theater department."
Duckling to swan
Written by Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe in 1962, "My Fair Lady" is based on George Bernard Shaw's play, "Pygmalion" which tells the story of poor Cockney girl, Eliza Doolittle, and the wealthy British gentleman, Professor Henry Higgins, who tries to transform her into a prim and proper woman.
"This is a musical play, actually," Gibbs said. "Not musical comedy. A lot of the musical's dialogue is exactly like 'Pygmalion.' So, you have to have special people in the cast who have the ability to act and sing."
Some of the musical's well-known songs include, "Wouldn't it be Loverly," "On the Street Where You Live," "Get Me to the Church on Time," and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
More than 100 THS students auditioned for roles in the musical in November and rehearsals began in late February after a committee of three settled on the best possible cast.
McMillen, who recently played Scout in the THS production of "To Kill a Mockingbird," won the role of Eliza for several reasons.
"The committee liked her look. It's a look that you can enhance and make her look even more pretty and beautiful as the story goes on," Gibbs said. "And, she did a Cockney accent in auditions. She had studied and she had a Cockney accent when she came in. I think that impressed them and her singing certainly impressed them."
McMillen said playing Eliza, a role immortalized by Audrey Hepburn on film and Julie Andrews on stage, is something she has always wanted to do.
"Audrey Hepburn has always been my favorite actress," she said. "When I was little I would watch 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' all the time. She was my idol so to be able to portray a part that she portrayed is like a dream come true for me."
While THS has presented "My Fair Lady" in the past, all of the cast members in this production are new to the musical and some are appearing in their first THS musical.
Senior P.K. Thomas, 18, is a member of the Wave Connection show choir but never had time to be in the annual musical until this year.
"Learning how to talk like a Cockney person has been really hard," Thomas said of his role as Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle. "You have to think about it while you're talking."
Another new aspect to this production is the choreographer. For the first time in THS history, a student was selected to choreograph the entire musical.
"Mrs. Gibbs just asked me one day if I wanted to choreograph the musical and I said, 'OK,'" said junior Allison Barber, 17. "I was really excited because this is what I'd like to do as a career. I'd love to be a choreographer."
A dance student since she was three years old, Barber currently dances and teaches at Tupelo's North Mississippi Dance Theatre where she choreographed some of the dances in the recent "Help!" benefit dance concert.
"It was real stressful at first because here there is such a variety of talent levels," she said. "It was hard to accommodate everybody's ability."
Barber also found herself working with a cast of approximately 80 energetic high school students who also happened to be her peers.
"Some songs were easier than others," Barber said, a grin crossing her face.
As a senior, Thomas isn't the only cast member preparing to perform and then graduate, "My Fair Lady" will be the final acting farewell for several other seniors, including two very familiar faces.
Will Beasley, a senior who last appeared at THS as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," now has to fill the sizable shoes of Rex Harrison, the actor who portrayed Professor Higgins on film opposite Hepburn.
"This is really the first time I've had a lead role with a lot of singing and I really enjoy it," Beasley, 18, said. "It's not like most musicals where you just have a small scene and then you sing a song. This is more geared around the acting aspect, which is why they got Rex Harrison to do it even though he couldn't sing."
Beasley, who recently won a $1,000 scholarship in a American Movie Classics talent search celebrating the history of America's gritty and graceful leading men, plans to attend the University of Colorado and major in theater after graduation this spring.
Regular patrons of THS plays have grown almost as accustomed to Beasley and senior Alice Larson being on stage together as Higgins grows to Eliza's face by the end of "My Fair Lady."
The pair, Larson plays Higgins' housekeeper, Ms. Pearce in the musical, have produced many memorable performances at THS such as their riotous turn as a married couple in last fall's production of Neil Simon's "Rumors."
"It's going to be so hard," Larson said of the moment when her high school acting career comes to an end. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
Beasley had a clearer picture of what saying goodbye to the THS drama department will be like after his final bows.
"I'll probably shed a few tears," he said. "These past few years have been great and I've loved every musical that we've done. This has just been a part of my life for the past four years."
Larson plans to continue her acting career by majoring in theater in college, possibly at William Woods College in Missouri.
Gibbs said she has already cried a few tears for the seniors who will be departing the THS theater department all too soon.
"It's kind of a bittersweet thing," she said. "You're glad that they're moving on but you're sad because you won't have those people anymore to count on to do things. But, there are other people who will step right in to those shoes."
The seniors who will perform their THS swan song in "My Fair Lady" have lasting memories they will take away from their theatrical experiences in Tupelo and Beasley is no exception.
"I guess the hula scene in 'South Pacific' where I wore the coconut bra," he said when asked about his most memorable moment. "I didn't get a lot from it but that was certainly the most memorable."
Making the transformation from a coconut-bra wearing islander to a member of Britain's upper-crust society in just four years is a transition that would make even Professor Higgins, Col. Pickering, and Eliza proud.
"Definitely," Beasley said, laughing. "Definitely."
What: "My Fair Lady"
Who: Tupelo High School students
When: 7:30 p.m. April 9-10 and 2 p.m. April 10
Where: Tupelo Civic Auditorium
Tickets: $5 - Children up to 6th grade will be admitted for $3 to matinee
For more info: Call 840-1841
Cast: Eliza Doolittle (Audrea McMillen), Mrs. Eynsford Hill (Kristen Corbett), Mrs. Higgins (Jenny Morrison), Mrs. Pearce (Alice Larson), Mrs. Hopkins (Kasie Keith), Lady Boxington (Lindsay Bennett), Queen of Transylvania (Miranda Wood), Col. Pickering (Brad Paulk), Henry Higgins (Will Beasley), Freddy (Jeremy Brown), Alfred P. Doolittle (P.K. Thomas), Harry (Nicholas Whipple), Jamie (T.J. Salters), Zoltan Karpathy (Wilson Boyd), Lord Boxington (Justin Smith), Bartender (Ben Gatlin), Quartet (Patrick Carnathan, Ben Mason, Brandon Martin, and Justin Smith), Servant's Chorus/Ascot Chorus (Lindsay Bennett, Mandi Burns, Kristen Corbett, Leslie Douglas, April Hamilton, Kasie Keith, Kim Mackey, Jenny Morrison, Leslie Randle, Ellen Robinson, Sara Peters, Saretta Stewart, Jessica Strasser, Molly Williams, Miranda Wood, Tara Yates, Wilson Boyd, Jeremy Brown, Patrick Carnathan, Ben Gatlin, Nathan Kornegay, Brandon Martin, Ben Mason, Josh Nunnelee, T.J. Salters, Justin Smith, Jason Stacy, Craig Tolbert, and Nicholas Whipple), Three Maids (April Hamilton, Kim Mackey, and Sara Peters), and Cockney Chorus (Allison Barber, Erin Brinton, Katie Caldwell, Mary Elizabeth Cody, Kacy Collier, Carman Collums, Camille Comer, Jennifer Davidson, Crystal Denton, Vashaun Dykes, Kendall Foster, Danielle Frerer, Lucy Goodpaster, Katie Herring, Mary Stewart Hester, Emily Hicks, Jennifer High, Jennifer Horton, Zandria Ivy, Tawana Johnson, Kasie Keith, Terra Kendrick, Katie McKenzie, Elizabeth Medlin, Maggie Morgan, Claire Price, Lauren Ray, Laura Russell, Katie Schaefer, Tracy Scott, Jennifer Simpson, Leah Smith, Lauren Stimpson, Kellye Taylor, Roxie Thomas, Christine Tseng, Mary Rollins White, Melinda White, Mary Beth Willis, Katie Witthauer, Wilson Boyd, Michael Bumphis, Patrick Carnathan, Josh Clayton, Brad Corban, Cody Davidson, Ben Gatlin, Nathan Kornegay, Brandon Martin, Ben Mason, Josh Nunnelee, T.J. Salters, Justin Smith, Jason Stacy, P.K. Thomas, Craig Tolbert, Nicholas Whipple, and Gray Yates).