We place people by their accents," says Clayton Phillips. "I came from Pittsburgh. I fought for years to get rid of this mill worker guy's voice."
Phillips has been working on accents with actors in Jefferson Parish Arts Society's (JPAS) production of My Fair Lady. In the classic musical, British gentleman Henry Higgins meets Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle on the streets. He's fascinated by her accent, but he believes her speech can be transformed into that of a lady, and he takes up the challenge for the noblest of reasons: to win a bet.
Eliza wants to get a better job in a florist shop, and she knows her Cockney accent keeps her from such an opportunity. When Colonel Pickering hears her speak, he bets Higgins can't change her. The final test will be a society ball, and if anyone can detect Eliza's natural accent, and what it reveals about her background, Pickering wins. It's not as easy as Higgins believes at first, and as they spend time together, they develop a bond. Higgins is a bachelor and a bit of a misogynist, and Eliza begins to change him as well.
The musical was a long-running hit after premiering on Broadway in 1956, and was made into a movie in 1964, which helped immortalize the song "The Rain in Spain," featuring one of the trickier speech exercises and tongue twisters Higgins uses to coax Eliza out of her old habits.
The show is set in Edwardian-era London, but Phillips notes that it's more than a Cinderella story.
"It's also about what Eliza is doing," he says. "She's trying to be an equal partner with Higgins."
The show has a cast of more than 20 and features major set changes and an orchestra. The lush presentation for which Phillips strives is well suited for Jefferson Parish Arts Society's (JPAS) first production in the recently opened Jefferson Performing Arts Center. The $54.5 million facility has been in the works for nearly 20 years. It is owned by the parish and managed by SMG, which also manages the Superdome.
The impressive new 86,000-square-foot building has a theater capacity of 1,061 seats, including boxes and balcony seating. There's an orchestra pit and JPAS Artistic Director Dennis Assaf will conduct a 30-piece orchestra for My Fair Lady and a larger ensemble for operas.
Assaf has been the main proponent for the construction of such a Jefferson Parish facility for 37 years. JPAS will serve as artist-in-residence during its first year. Its season includes the musicals Sister Act (Dec. 4-13), Mary Poppins (May 11-20, 2016) and a reprise of JPAS' award-winning production of The Light in the Piazza (Jan. 22-31). Other fine arts productions include the opera Rigoletto (Oct. 23 & 25) and ballets The Nutcracker (Dec. 19-20) and A Midsummer Night's Dream Ballet (May 14-15, 2016). JPAS also presents a season of musicals at Teatro Wego! in Westwego. Phillips previously directed Smokey Joe's Cafe and Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical for JPAS, and he'll return to direct Mary Poppins in May.