“Great musicals, like great plays, demand to be reinterpreted for each generation,” says Molly Smith, the director of Arena Stage’s steampunk production of My Fair Lady now playing through January 6, 2013.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady has been called “the perfect musical.” I agree.
Set in London in 1912, the story is about a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle who learns how to speak proper English with the help of Henry Higgins who is a professor of phonetics.
If you’ve seen other productions of My Fair Lady, get ready to see it like you’ve never seen before. Like how the lyrics go in the song, “I could have danced all night and still have begged for more,” this musical production is so good that I could have watched this show all night and still have begged for more!
So what sets this production apart from other productions? In a nutshell, the nontraditional casting and the steampunk style costumes.
Molly Smith made the choice to cast Chinese-American actress Manna Nichols to play the role of Eliza Doolittle and Chinese-American actor James Saito as Alfred P. Doolittle, her father. The role of Eliza was made famous on stage by Julie Andrews and then Audrey Hepburn in the film adapation. Molly’s nontraditional casting choice goes deeper than just being multicultural. In fact, historically it is plausible that the characters could have been Chinese since during the turn of 20th century in London, Chinese immigrants were very much a part of the area.
The costumes for the lower class, designed by Judith Bowden, were influenced by the steampunk movement. (Think Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Sweeney Todd.) This style which blends steam-engine technology with Victorian-era fashion helped to create a darker feeling in the poor streets of London. The steampunk style was particularly successful during the song “With a Little Bit of Luck.” Performed by Alfred P. Doolittle and the ensemble, the song took on a Stomp-like feel, turning everyday objects into instruments, like galvanized washboards, stoneware jug, and broom.
…a TRIUMPH…. I could have watched this show all night and still have begged for more!
Benedict Campbell is splendid as Professor Henry Higgins, a male chauvinist who is a professor of phonetics as well as a self-proclaimed “confirmed old bachelor.” For full disclosure, I must admit that I am a huge fan of Rex Harrison, the originator of the role on Broadway and in the film. I really didn’t think any actor could possibly please me as much as Rex Harrison, until I saw Mr. Campbell in the role. But this was no copy of Mr. Harrison’s performance. Benedict Campbell took the role and made it his own. He also sang the songs a bit more, than Rex Harrison’s speak singing. Similar in appearance to Michael Caine, Mr. Campbell played the role almost like a mad scientist. This man (Higgins) is obsessed with his job! Higgins lives and breathes “Simple phonetics. The science of speech. That’s my profession: also my hobby,” he said to Eliza. Yes, Professor Higgins is such a phonetic geek that he oozed with excitement when Doolittle said, “I’m willing to tell ya. I’m wanting to tell ya. I’m waiting to tell ya.”
So how does Manna Nichols measure up as Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl who says that she wants “to be a lady in a flower shop stead of selling at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. But they won’t take me unless I can talk more genteel.” Her interpretation of the role fits with the rest of the lower class characters which take on a darker, less innocent feel. You can tell through the anger that she has for her father that she has not lived the happiest of life and truly longs to have a fantasy life of riches as in the song, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” And yes, Manna’s singing voice is indeed “loverly!”
The show is performed as theatre-in-the-round in Arena’s Finchandler Stage. Molly Smith keeps the action interesting, as in the song “Just You Wait” where Eliza imagines getting even with Professor Henry Higgins. In particular, she makes good use of props, including action with chairs, phone, phonograph recorder, and a sculpture of the brain.
Let’s not forget about Colonial Pickering. Tall in stature, Thomas Adrian Simpson exudes elegance as Higgins’s friend, who assists him in teaching Eliza. As Higgins assistant, his character almost serves to Higgins as what was TV’s Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson. He was there to compliment his friend and make him look good. Thomas was his funniest during the song “The Rain in Spain.” When you go and see the show, look at how his jaw drops and eyes bug out when he hears Eliza say properly, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”
Mrs. Higgins (Catherine Flye), Henry Higgins’s socialite mother is always embarrassed when her son is in her presence because “he has no manners.” Audiences will agree that Catherine Flye is hilarious! Whenever I’ve seen the play the role seemed very small. But not here. She delivered the lines with such wit that people would laugh and clap loudly even after the shortest of scenes.
Musical director Paul Sportelli led the terrific 13 piece live orchestra. The music sounded lively and fresh. One moment to their musical arrangement which made the production special was an instrumental break in “You Did It.” Incorporating a Ragtime sound, it added more of a historically accurate flavor. The special treat of having live strings was much appreciated with Bruno Nasta and Doug Dube on the violins and Deb Milan Brudvig on the cello.
In Act II, the talented ensemble got to show off their dance skills in the song “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Choreographed by Daniel Pelzig, the dances included high kicks, spins, and even a dance move called coffee grinders. Each of the hard working ensemble members deserves to be mentioned: Bev Appleton, Will Burton, Dean Andre De Luna, Erin Driscoll, Afra Hines, Jennifer Irons, Robert Mintz, Jess Palmer, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Joe Peck, Sade Simmons, Kim Willes, and Hannah Willman.
Other notable performances include the handsome and sweet sounding Nicholas Rodriguez as Freddy Eynsford Hill, Eliza’s suitor. The comic timing of Sherri L. Edelen as Mrs. Pearce, head of Higgin’s housekeeper’s was spot on!
Director Molly Smith’s production of My Fair Lady is a TRIUMPH! The steampunk idea as well as the nontraditional casting really worked for this musical. Let’s wish Molly Smith all the best for this production as well as for her upcoming opportunity to direct a Broadway show, Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, a two-character play that is to star Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.
My Fair Lady plays through January 6, 2013 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.