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November 20, 2012

Arena Stage revives Lerner and Loewe's 'My Fair Lady'

Arena Stage has established an admirable track record for putting classic musicals back into the spotlight, as reconfirmed in recent seasons with imaginative takes on “Oklahoma” and “The Music Man.”

Now comes “My Fair Lady.” This production isn’t an unqualified success — a curious bit of miscasting and some cramped, uninteresting choreography take a toll — but it provides a welcome reminder of the masterpiece status of this 1956 Lerner and Loewe hit, which is as rich in plot as in music.

Part of the work’s success is clearly attributable to the source material, G.B. Shaw’s brilliant “Pygmalion.” But what counts the most is how the creators built on that material, how the well-crafted songs add so many telling layers to the story.

Arena artistic director Molly Smith clearly appreciates those qualities. There’s an honesty and affection in her approach here. And, just as ...

she shook up “Oklahoma” with multiracial casting, she has applied a similar touch here, in this case to reflect the many nationalities in the London of 1912, the setting of “My Fair Lady.”

The direction lacks steam in places (the opening Covent Garden scene, in particular, could use more color and drive), and Smith has not found a way to keep the show’s talkiest spots from weighing down Act 2. Still, the net result is quite entertaining.

As Eliza Doolittle, the flower-selling guttersnipe given a chance to change her station in life by substituting proper English for her low-class Cockney, Manna Nichols is more convincing after the transformation. She looks sensational, when, after the fierce tutelage of Professor Henry Higgins, she makes a truly regal entrance in the Embassy Ball scene.

The actress is also an effective singer, capable of soaring sweetly in “I Could Have Danced All Night” and putting a good deal of bite into “Show Me.”

Benedict Campbell nearly walks away with the production as Higgins. He’s a terrific actor, wonderfully colorful in voice, fluid and natural in movement, and he makes the character’s mix of pride, arrogance and insecurity register in keen detail. He and Nichols handle their big emotional scenes in Act 2 deftly, so that the anger and hurt on both sides comes across.

Unlike Rex Harrison, who left a sizable mark as the original Higgins on Broadway and the subsequent film version of the musical, Campbell can actually sing. That’s no small matter, especially when it comes to the showy “Hymn to Him.”

Thomas Adrian Simpson has a good romp as Col. Pickering; he’s especially winning in the panic over Eliza’s disappearance after the ball.

The other prime supporting role of Eliza’s deliciously amoral father, Alfred P. Doolittle, is inadequately filled by James Saito. His acting is awkward, and neither his speaking nor singing voice reveals any distinction. A major let-down.

The rest of the ensemble shines. Nicholas Rodriguez, the irresistible Curly in Arena’s “Oklahoma,” reveals abundant personality as Eliza’s determined suitor, Freddy, and spins “On the Street Where You Live” with fresh charm.

The reliable Sherri L. Edelen vibrantly fleshes out the character of Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. Swooping into scenes with the flair of Hedda Hopper and the backbone of Lady Bracknell, Catherine Flye is a consistent delight as the professor’s mother. The chorus moves nimbly through its paces.

Donald Eastman’s set provides sufficient atmosphere. Judith Bowden’s costumes include some fabulous hats that would have turned heads at the William-and-Kate wedding. And Paul Sportelli leads a small orchestra in a polished, dynamic account of the inspired score.

"My Fair Lady" runs through Jan. 6

PHOTOS BY SUZANNE BLUE STAR BOY (Manna Nichols and Benedict Campbell as Eliza and Higgins; Catherine Flye as Mrs. Higgins)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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