Alan Jay Lerner (Book and Lyrics) and Frederick Loewe’s (Music) My Fair Lady will long be remembered as one of the great American musical theatre works thanks mostly to its luscious score. Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, it has received numerous productions in professional theatres, community theatres, and high schools and for good reason. Although Artistic Director Molly Smith has introduced a slightly new concept for the musical in her current Arena Stage production, the end result is rather lackluster even with some very strong singing from the leads and ensemble cast alike.
Thanks to the iconic film of the same name, it’s quite possibly that even those Americans that don’t know Jerry Herman from Stephen Sondheim are familiar with the tale of Eliza Doolittle (Manna Nichols) and Professor Henry Higgins (Benedict Campbell). Eliza Doolittle, of course, is a flower seller in London’s Covent Garden in 1912, who attracts the attention of two older men enamored with the study of speech – Henry Higgins and Col Pickering (a very strong Thomas Adrian Simpson) – thanks to her poor manner of speaking. Eventually, Eliza arrives at Higgins’ house in search of speech lessons to better her chances at working in a flower shop. Pickering offers to pay for Eliza’s lessons as part of a bet on whether or not the prickly and insensitive Higgins can sufficiently ‘makeover’ the feisty Eliza so that she fits in at an upcoming Embassy ball. The musical largely focuses on Eliza’s transformation and the conflicts that emerge between the professor and his pupil during that process.
Smith’s production does not stray from this known story line although the social differences/distance between Eliza and her lower class cohorts and the educated Higgins and London’s political elite are further illuminated with costume choices. Judith Bowden’s gritty steampunk costumes for the Cockneys are a feast for the eyes and are vastly different than what one usually sees in most My Fair Lady productions. In contrast, the costumes used in the scenes portraying Higgins’ world are refined and elegant, though not nearly as complex in terms of color schemes and fabrics used. While these choices certainly highlight the gaps between the two groups, it’s largely unclear as to what precisely these choices represent other than the distance/differences in and of themselves. If the idea is to say that one group is grittier than the other, I don’t think the average audience member needs to be reminded of that fact. Likewise, Smith’s choice to use a multi-ethnic cast – Nichols is of Asian descent and several other members of the cast are Latino, African American, or Asian – , may highlight the diversity of London in that time period (which also, incidentally, holds true to this day), but does not necessarily add any new dimension to the story.
Although interesting, I did not necessarily see the artistic purpose behind these two decisions. Neither is revolutionary, but they do not hinder the success of the production. Slow pacing, minimalist approaches to staging scenes, less than inspired choreography from Daniel Pelzig (though superbly performed by the cast), unsurprising and dull set design (Donald Eastman), inconsistent dialects, and the small-sounding orchestra (though one that sounds quite great under the direction of Paul Sportelli) make this production one that left me wanting a little bit more (and not in a good way).
I will say, however, that every member of the cast does considerable justice to Lerner and Loewe’s classic score. The ensemble breathes life into “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?” The cast’s enthusiasm and vigor is infectious and only matched by its technical singing ability. Nichols, with her crystal clear Disney princess-like soprano voice, gives an impeccable vocal performance of “Show Me” (with the proficient and adorable Nicholas Rodriguez as Freddy) and the memorable “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Campbell also demonstrates good vocals. Although the Professor Higgins role has been superbly performed by non-singers in past productions, I certainly appreciated this extra element.