‘My Fair Lady’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater by Joel Markowitz


Arena Stage has a holiday gift waiting for you on the Fichandler Stage – a ‘loverly,’ joyful, colorful, funny, brilliantly acted and beautifully sung production of the much loved musical My Fair Lady. If you love Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s timeless score you will simply adore it! It’s a feast for musical theatre lovers everywhere. And in the round – in the intimate Fichandler – Professor Henry Higgins (Benedict Campbell), Eliza Doolittle (Manna Nichols), Colonel Pickering (Thomas Adrian Simpson), Alfred Doolittle (James Saito), and Mrs. Higgins (Catherine Flye) are right there in front of you and beside you. And as the story unfolds and those familiar songs are played and sung, it’s musical heaven!

Molly Smith directed the production at last year’s Shaw Festival and has reunited with members of her Shaw design team and actor Benedict Campbell, who reprises his role of Henry Higgins.

(L to R) Manna Nichols (Eliza Doolittle) and Benedict Campbell (Henry Higgins). Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy.

There is so much praise to go around to everyone involved in this glorious production. First, to Director Molly Smith who infuses so much humor and happiness into the performances of her talented cast. There is joy enveloping the audience from every inch of the Fichandler. Fromthe first time we meet the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, Professor Henry Higgins, and Colonel Pickering  to their bubbly and enthusiastic rendition of “The Rain in Spain,’ you know that everyone on the stage is having a blast. And it’s infectious! You can’t take your eyes off the stage and you can’t help but smile and applaud every time a song is sung, a beautiful costume arrives, and a biting and/or a funny line or speech is recited. This production of My Fair Lady is a smorgasbord of delights.

Special praise must go to the designers. If I had only three words to describe Donald Eastman’s set design – I would use: ‘simple yet elegant.’ A floral pattern covers the stage floor and large crystal chandeliers light the stage. Desks, chairs, tables, and other props are quickly carried or wheeled on and quickly wheeled off the stage so efficiently that they never slow down the pace or intrude in the storytelling.

Costume Designer Judith Bowden has created some gorgeous gowns and hats for the women in the show. I especially loved what she designed for Mrs. Higgins, and the colorful creations for the ‘Ascot Gavotte’ scene. According to the press notes I received from the theatre they explained that “The lower, middle, and upper classes clash onstage, and each class is further expressed through couture-level costumes designed by Bowden. Influenced by the Steampunk Movement that blends steam engine technology with Victorian Era fashion, Bowden creates layered looks for the lower class that refer to the mechanism of today mixed with a classic Victorian Style, while the upper class is clothed in Alexander McQueen inspired gowns.”

Jock Munro provides the effective lighting design. Carl Casella’s sound design supplies the galloping of horses at the race track, and most important – I could understand every glorious word of Alan Jay Lerner’s poetic, biting, funny, and faithful book based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. What Mr. Casella’s crisp and crystal clear sound design did for me was to remind me what a wonderful book My Fair Lady has. And I can’t remember laughing so much at any of the dozens of other productions of My Fair Lady I have seen before – like I did tonight. Daniel Pelzig’s high-energy, twirling, swirling, high-kicking choreography was a hit with the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed the elegant choreography of “Ascot Gavotte” and the upbeat “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

For me the real stars of the night were the exceptional 11 musicians, led by Musical Director Paul Sportelli – who played the popular score so beautifully. I felt like I was hearing this beautiful score for the first time because the orchestrations were simply gorgeous. Lerner and Loewe would have smiled! “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “The Rain in Spain,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” sounded so fresh and exciting. They don’t write ‘em like this one anymore!

The cast of ‘My Fair Lady.’ Photo by Richard Anderson.

I was elated when I heard that Benedict Campbell was reprising his Shaw Festival performance as Higgins. What a pleasure it was to have the role played by both a great actor and a wonderful singer, as we saw in his renditions of “Why Can’t the English” and “I’m an Ordinary Man.” Campbell’s Higgins is no one-dimensional kvetcher like I have seen this character played in so many other productions. Here you see a man struggling with his own self-confidence, self-doubt, and arrogance who must change the way treats Eliza if he is not to lose her forever. And this Higgins is funny and playful at times, as we see in the duet “A Hymn to Him,” sung with Colonel Pickering (a very funny and endearing Thomas Adrian Simpson). When Campbell sang “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” I actually believed  that this stubborn, self-absorbed man could love and change. It’s a performance I won’t soon forget.

After seeing her in Walnut Street Theatre’s The King and I where she played Tuptim (and won a Barrymore Award for her performance), I was thrilled to hear that  Manna Nichols was going to play Eliza. She has a beautiful, crystal clear voice and is a fine actress, and she brings a lot of ‘umph’ and feistiness to her portrayal of the flower girl-turned socialite. Her rendition of “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” is simply…loverly, and her assertiveness in “Just You Wait Henry Higgins” was an 8 on the Richter Scale. Her performance of “I Could Have Danced All Night” made you want to get out of your seat and take a whirl around the Fischandler with her. Manna is a star and this performance will help her career glow brighter.

What can you say about Catherine Flye’s Mrs. Higgins? It’s another fine, classy, tough, and funny performance by a great actress who with one glance or a nod or a wave of her hand can steal a scene or two. Her verbal exchanges with Campbell  are priceless.

Nicholas Rodriguez returns to Arena Stage (after wowing audiences as Curly in their runaway hit Oklahoma!) to knock the socks out of the suave Freddy’s 11:00 clock number “On the Street Where You Live.” As his gorgeous tenor rang out in that intimate space I wanted to shout out, “Are you crazy Eliza? Run into his arms…NOW!”  When Nichols joined Rodriguez in “Show Me,” the audience went crazy!

If you have ever wondered why so many community theatres, dinner theatres, professional theatres, university theatres, regional theatres, and high schools have My Fair Lady on their schedules, and why this timeless musical is still so loved by audiences all over the world – just pop in to the Fichandler. You’ll see why critics and audiences alike still call My Fair Lady ‘The Perfect Musical.’

(L to R) Manna Nichols(Eliza Doolittle) and Nicholas Rodriguez (Freddy Eynsford-Hill). Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy.

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.

LINK

My Interview with Catherine Flye on Playing Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady at Arena Stage.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.

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3 Responses to ‘My Fair Lady’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater by Joel Markowitz

  1. Ed Kelty November 17, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    It was a fabulous night and the wonderful orchestra could be heard as it was not over-amped. I have never heard a more brilliant version of “I could have danced all night.” The only downer was that the loverly lady was stuck with the old codger.

  2. Steven November 18, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    Nicely written review, and I do hope to see what sounds like an excellent production. I do, however, have one small quibble: You mention the book of MY FAIR LADY as a “faithful adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s PYGMALION”. It’s likely, however, that Shaw would have strongly disapproved of the changes that Lerner & Lowe made to his play, especially in romanticizing the ending. Shaw continued to rewrite the ending of the play during his life particularly because it was often misinterpreted with the inference of a romantic coupling between Eliza & Higgins. He even penned a lengthy epilogue (which he titled “Sequel: What Happened After” — you can read it here: http://www.bartleby.com/138/6.html) in which he reveals that Eliza in fact does marry Freddy and provides some manner of closure to the all the characters’ story lines.
    That said, MY FAIR LADY does stand up as one of the great books in Musical Theatre because of its debt to Shaw and the important social issues contained in the original that Lerner & Lowe wisely decided to keep (albeit filtered through a somewhat more rosy lens).
    To see Shaw’s original story (and decide for yourself whether you agree with this assessment) check out The Washington Stage Guild’s production of PYGMALION, currently playing through December 2. While we may not have the technically wizardry that Arena is capable of, I wager it is every bit as dramatically satisfying and will give you a look at quite a different ending for the Professor and the Flower Girl. (http://myemail.constantcontact.com/PYGMALION-EXTENDED–Plus-free-reading-of-ANDROCLES—THE-LION-at-Stage-Guild.html?soid=1102534218343&aid=LdUbQd_zuis)

    • admin November 18, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

      Steven:

      Thanks so much for your comment and links. I did change it to “based on…” so your points are well taken. Our reviewer did adore Washington Stage Guild’s production of Pygmalion. You can read Erica Laxson’s review here: