Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Fair Lady at Arena Stage

Arena Stage presents a simply lovely production of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady.  With radiant performances and a design palette bursting with color, this classic tale adapted from Pygmalion the play and film by George Bernard Shaw has settled into the Fichander Stage for the holiday season.

This is the story of a poor Cockney flower girl who seeks to improve her life by learning to speak English more gentile and the phonetics professor who agrees to do so to win a wager that he can pass her off as a duchess in six months time.  Their journey exposes the prejudices of the English class system and leads to insights and understanding as both characters discover their humanity and an abiding affection grows between them that transcends their initial student/teacher relationship.

Artistic Director Molly Smith has made some brilliant choices in bringing her vision of this show to vibrant life.  In particular the design choices are  fanciful yet clearly delineate the different classes portrayed in the play.  The Cockney characters are a riot of steampunk color, the palette for Professor Higgins, Colonel Pickering and the servants staid muted earth tones and sensible black.   Most welcome is the famous Ascot scene forever linked to the black and white scheme of the Broadway and film's award-winning designer Cecil Beaton.   Here, costumer Judith Bowden provides a stunning array of jewel tones and pastels, the hats, many executed by Arena Stage's milliner Deborah Nash, are more than worthy of the Alexander McQueen runway-style inspiration.

Molly Smith's other inspired move is to embrace the multicultural casting which she used to great effect in her 2010 production of Oklahoma!  Her choices of casting not only give opportunities to actors who might not be considered for major roles in the classic musical canon, but are thoughtfully applied and justified by historical research.

It is terrific to see many performers that are well-known to Washington, D.C. theatergoers. Sherri L. Edelen steers the Professors household as the housekeeper Mrs. Pierce, adapting comedically well to the disruptions in her well-ordered routine.  Thomas Adrian Simpson has an edge of charm to his occasionally obtuse Colonel Pickering.  Catherine Flye commands the stage in her all too brief appearances as the disapproving mother of Professor Higgins.  James Saito adds a bit of a wink and a sly nod attitude to the famed philosophical dustman, Alfred P. Doolittle.

Nicholas Rodriguez makes a welcome return to Arena Stage as the ardent Freddy Eynsford-Hill.  His rendition of On The Street Where You Live elicits a few sighs as Mr. Rodriguez charms the audience.  His physical transformation during Show Me as he strips the veneer of his stiff upper class bearing to match the ardent passion of Miss Doolittle is delightful.

Benedict Campbell is not the first Henry Higgins to largely abandon the speak-singing style of Rex Harrison but the decision to do so is wise.  Mr. Campbell shades his Higgins' arrogance with the simple cluelessness of a man who simply has few social skills.  When this Pygmalion is confronted by his growing feelings for his Galatea Mr. Campbell breaks down his barriers in a manner that does not betray the nature of Professor Higgins' character.   Mr. Campbell's rendition of I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face is deeply affecting, a true revelation of human emotion.

This production truly belongs to the incredible Eliza Doolittle of Manna Nichols.  Eliza is a dual-natured woman and it is hard to find an actress who can equally portray the survalist gutter snipe and the refined lady.  Ms. Nichols manages this task by never allowing the refined Eliza to completely lose her true self.  When Eliza proclaims that she is no longer fit for anything other than to sell herself in marriage, it is a genuine cry of despair as the consequences of the transformative experiment hit home.  Ms. Nichols has a soaring soprano voice that does marvelous justice to the many beautiful songs in Lerner and Loewe's score.

If there is any flaw in this production it may come from your fellow audience members.  My Fair Lady is so well known that you should not be surprised to hear those around you humming or not so quietly singing along with the actors.  It is a very minor irritant that should not distract from a loverly evening of theater.

My Fair Lady is being performed in the Fichander Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theatre through January 6, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

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