Courtesy of David Willis and the excellent webcomic Shortpacked!
Now that scene above, Molly Smith, would represent “a completely fresh interpretation” of the 50 year old musical.
What we really get, press releases to the contrary, is the same old My Fair Lady we’re all familiar with – a story of a poor, uneducated girl who is transformed by the teaching of an older man into someone who can pass in upper-crust society. Once her Stockholm Syndrome has fully settled in she finds herself in love. Arena’s take is attractive and consistent, minus two odd transgressions, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. If that’s what you want, great – here you go. It’s the perfect production to take your parents to while they’re visiting over the holidays and it’s a lovely night out in the theater.
The high points are certainly Nicholas Rodriguez as Freddie, the inexplicably passed-over suitor, and the staging and choreography. The low point would be the lack of attention paid to the last fifty years of feminism and any sense of why Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle would come together in the end in a romantic relationship. Some of that is where we are as a society compared to when the orignal was penned, but some of the blame has to fall on the directoral decisions and how Benedict Campbell portrays Higgins as not just absent-minded and detached but as somewhat spitefully mean.
The cast of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of My Fair Lady November 3, 2012-January 6, 2013. Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy.
Manna Nichols as Eliza, on the other hand, brings an excellent combination of spunk and vulnerability to the role. She displays Eliza’s ambition for more in life with just the right quantity to make us believe she’d stomach the slings and arrows of Higgins’ abuse and neglect. Her sense of anguish over how she now sees no choices in front of herself after her “betterment” is tragic. If this was really the new look at My Fair Lady that we’re promised then we might see more of that tragedy in the wrap-up, rather than some banter and a smiling final reunion that should leave us weeping for Eliza’s surrender of her inner fire and identify.
Instead we wrap with Higgins’ slumbering domestic demand to Eliza before he wakes to her return, and a gentle shared smile as they come together. A more honest conclusion would have had her slumped and defeated, fetching his slippers as he continues to lay back, able to get what he wants regardless of any personal chance or concession.
Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins, Manna Nichols as Eliza Doolittle and Thomas Adrian Simpson as Colonel Pickering, with ensemble members Jennifer Irons and Kim Willes, in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of My Fair Lady November 3, 2012-January 6, 2013. Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy.
But that’s the depressing conclusion. The ride up to that point is luverly, both in sound and sight. The show hiccups over James Saito’s Alfred P Doolittle, who is fun every moment he’s not singing. Simpson’s Colonel Pickering is good in song but his characterization wanders in places, particularly when he seems to have over-partaken of the coca leaf before manically disclosing the plan to Mrs Higgins at the races. Before and after he’s fairly laconic and mindful of societal pressures.
Top standout goes to a man we never see, Daniel Pelzig, who choreographed the show. I enjoyed nothing in this production more than the dancing. I could have watched it all night.
My Fair Lady, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, through January 6th. Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater is located at 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Closest Metro stop: Waterfront (Green line). For more information call 202-488-3300.