My Fair Lady
Plays about transformations are particularly challenging, because we need to not only believe the characters, but also then believe them again when they are recreated.
"My Fair Lady," which premiered on Broadway in 1956 and is now at Arena Stage, tackles this, as does its two leads, the foolish, flower-selling Eliza Doolittle (Manna Nichols) and the imperious and cynical Professor Henry Higgins (Benedict Campbell). Both first appear to be cranky, awkward and contemptuous, and then grow to be cultured, refined and loving.
Her transformation is more believable than his, and the chemistry between the two is lacking as a result, but the play dances on, upbeat and celebratory, even though the central love story seems incomplete.
While Campbell is too stuffy, even for an uptight British professor of phonetics trying to teach a poor lass to speak the King's English, he is upstaged by his more avuncular sidekick Colonel Pickering (Thomas Adrian Simpson) who seems to be more genuinely infatuated with Eliza.
Nichols is a lively likeable Eliza, though she lacks the acting chops to live up to the stage and screen originators of the character, Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn, who both made her transformation from ignorant and flawed to graceful and regal believable. Nichols does, however, have an impressive beauty, passion and youthful zip about her, and her dancing is strong, bringing a gleeful kick to "Wouldn't it be Loverly" and "Just You Wait."
The other problematic transformation in Molly Smith's rendition of the Lerner and Loewe musical (which was originally inspired by George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion") is to create reliably British accents among its decidedly non-British actors. This as well seems strained, with the cockney accents jangling with dropped syllables and surprising twangs.
But the music and dance scenes help transform this production from uneven to exhilarating. Musical director Paul Sportelli led the live orchestra in thrilling compilations, and choreographer Daniel Pelzig's ensemble dances are ecstatic. When Eliza exults joyfully in "I Could Have Danced All Night," the audience wants to glide along stage with her. The true romance seems to be not with Higgins, but with the much more desirable Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Nicholas Rodriguez) who serenades her home in the truly romantic "The Street Where You Live."
Costume designer's Judith Bowden's costumes are similarly eye-popping and celebratory, with street urchins dressed in multi-colored, layered steampunk style, and the upper class ladies clothed in bright satin dresses for the scene at the horse races. Donald Eastman's set design adds further flair using simple changes of scenery to create an ornate apartment, ragged street corner and formal ball.
"My Fair Lady" runs through Jan. 6 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets or information, call 202-488-3300, or go to www.arenastage.org.