By David Moye
The 90 children currently rehearsing for the Peter Pan Junior Theater’s upcoming production of “My Fair Lady” not only have to learn their lines and choreography, but, in some cases, how to dress themselves.
“Many of today’s fashions don’t use buttons or snaps like they did when the play is set. They need to learn how to use buttons and snaps,” is how the show’s director, Dr. Mark Arapostathis, a teacher at La Mesa Arts Academy (LMAAC) and the mayor of La Mesa, explained it with good-natured exasperation. “We’re teaching them how to tie their own shoes.”
The production will run April 5-8 at the Joan B. Kroc Salvation Army Theater and, as always, the young thespians learn more than just their lines (or how to put on period attire).
“As with all of our shows, we’ve created a study guide where we talk about George Bernard Shaw, who wrote ‘Pygmalion,’ the play that was the basis for ‘My Fair Lady,’ back in 1913,” Arapostathis said. “And we discuss Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who wrote the musical in the early 1950s.”
Henry Higgins, the play’s leading character is a linguist able to pinpoint where a person lives based on the accent. To that end, some of the actors are learning to speak in multiple British dialects.
Arapostathis is using this aspect of the play to teach about how language influences class distinctions.
“We separate class by language,” Arapostathis said. “One of the examples I use is my own family. I come from Greek immigrants and there are many people in my family who have thick Greek accents who are very scholarly.
“If someone were to meet them for the first time, they might think they are not well-educated because their English is broken, even though English is their third or fourth language.”
This marks the third time Peter Pan Junior Theater has done “My Fair Lady” in its 47-year history. It also marks Arapostathis’ 24th show with the company.
“We did it in 1997 and 2004,” Arapostathis said. “The scope of the cast, the costumes and the scenery and props make it a large show. Plus, the rights haven’t always been available.”
Jokes about getting dressed aside, he says the real challenge for the young actors is understanding how to play adult characters.
“You’re a 13-year-old playing 55. Your posture and speech needs to change,” he said. “But a kid doesn’t have the frame of reference. They tend to play an older person stereotypically. They hunch over and get a craggy voice.”
Tickets to the four evening shows and one Saturday matinee are $15 each. In addition, the students will perform free shows for fifth graders in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District.
Arapostathis said he has noticed an increased interest in musical theater among kids, especially because of modern musicals like “Hamilton.”
“There is a resurgence nationwide because clips are available on YouTube and Periscope, but they only know certain musicials,” he said. “They don’t know ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Cats,’ or who Rodgers and Hammerstein are.
“What we are trying to do is establish cultural literacy,” he said. “The students will understand how this show fits into world culture.”
Performances for the show begin at 7 p.m. for the evening shows, 1 p.m. for the matinee. For more information, check out ppjt.org.
—David Moye is a freelance writer based in La Mesa. reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.