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PlayDC: My Fair Lady @ Arena Stage
December 5, 2012 | 2:45PM

All words: Courtney Pitman

Says phonetics Professor Henry Higgins of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl unceremoniously seeking lessons to improve her accent: “She’s so deliciously low. So horribly dirty.”

Higgins’ insults only delve into crueler and more imaginative territory through Arena Stage’s production of My Fair Lady. He devotes six months to educating the “guttersnipe” in language, manners, and dress, with the intention of transforming Eliza into an aristocratic lady… all for a bet with fellow older wealthy bachelor, Colonel Pickering. It’s the classic Cinderella/Pretty Woman/Princess Diaries rags-to-riches tale as Eliza struggles to acclimate herself to the posh surroundings and pretentious demeanors of the elite Londoners to whom she once tried to sell flowers.

I should interject a disclaimer here that I’m a guttersnipe myself when it comes to musical theatre; my qualifications for critique are:
• Attending the Oklahoma! production last year (my parents paid), which was helmed by Artistic Director Molly Smith, also responsible for My Fair Lady
• Favorite movies growing up included Mary Poppins and Sound of Music
• I have a Hairspray playbill from the 2006 Broadway production signed by Diana Degarmo (you know, the 2004 American Idol runner-up)

With this in mind, I’m going to segment the rest of this into my blaguard-ly categorical breakdown of My Fair Lady.

You presumptuous insect! [THE STORYLINE, AKA WHAT ARE YOU THINKING, ELIZA?!]

Based off George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, the musical My Fair Lady debuted to triumphant fanfare on Broadway in 1956 and has reached such an iconic status in pop culture, you may not have even realized where that “rain in Spain” reference came from. It came from My Fair Lady, everyone. With such classic performances by Julie Andrews in the original Broadway cast and Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film adaptation, I feel guilty and confused for saying….. huh?

In short, a snobby older bachelor, phonetics Professor Henry Higgins, takes in Eliza after his affable older bachelor friend, Colonel Hugh Pickering, bets him that he can’t pass off Eliza as a lady at the Embassy Ball in six months. The audience is charmed as Eliza, a 21 year-old rough around the edges beauty accustomed to a life of hard knocks (literally) slowly sheds her former self and indeed morphs into a lady, fooling even the Prince of Transylvania (or something) at the Embassy Ball. Of course there is many a mishap and laugh along the way as Eliza’s brash nature is constantly in conflict with Higgins’ selfish notions and constant putdowns. But after she succeeds in triumphant fashion at the Embassy Ball, where folks were absolutely buzzing with excitement over this alluring woman, and then Higgins’ proceeds to immediately take all the credit, Eliza realizes she’s no longer a guttersnipe, but doesn’t quite fit into the high society either. She ditches Higgins and runs away with Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young, attractive man who is in love with her since she made a fool of herself at the uppity Royal Ascot horse race.

SO, Eliza, if you have two men in your life, and one took you as a bet for his own personal glory and was completely miserable and rude to you for six months and then claimed your success for his own—and is also at least in his 50s—why is he the person you go back to at the end of the story? You charmed the pants off everyone at the Ball and a young handsome man loves you, even when you yelled at the horse to “move its bloomin’ arse” against every code in existence of the rich at the Royal Ascot. What kind of fairy tale is this?

Perhaps it’s because I happened to catch the end of Trading Places on TV before heading over to Arena Stage, a 1983 movie in which two older wealthy men make a bet on a nature vs. nurture experiment circling around Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd, but I wanted more vindication for Eliza in the end. Eddie Murphy went from a homeless street hustler to lounging on a tropical island. Sure, the Duke brothers’ intentions were more malicious, so maybe Eliza didn’t need to steal all of Higgins and Pickering’s money in a stock market scheme centering on orange juice concentrate (or something), but the two, and Higgins in particular, were taking personal satisfaction and entertainment from her situation. She could have taken all that she’d learned and the clothes she’d gotten and married Freddy, or opened a flower shop, or… anything she wanted. I don’t care if Higgins had “grown accustomed to her face,” he was a jerk, and even his mother knew it. I could start postulating about Eliza’s daddy issues here, but I won’t.

You squashed cabbage leaf! [VENUE]
Arena Stage is a remarkable venue and everyone should find an excuse to mosey down to the Waterfront for a visit. The building itself is a work of art to be marveled from the inside and out, and it successfully envelops a professional-but-not-pretentious ambience within—from helpful and efficient staff to performers and baristas. Also, their Catwalk Café served “Loverly Entrees” and a specialty drink called “The Eliza” (gin, orange juice, strawberry puree) which contributed to the atmosphere. It’s hard not to get sucked into the relaxed elegance when people obviously enjoy their jobs.

And it would be hard not to enjoy your job as an actor if you were performing My Fair Lady on Arena Stage’s Fichlander Stage. Partially because it looked like so much bloomin’ fun, but also because the intimate setup has seating on all four sides of the stage, forcing the actors to play to all directions and removing the security blanket of a curtain behind them. Additionally, the small space and no backside to the stage mandates minimal sets and props, with actors themselves pushing tables and chairs onto the stage in front of them in between scenes. This sparsely littered stage more effectively highlighted performances of the actors.

You impudent hussy! [CAST/PERFORMANCE]
Tasked with performing such an iconic work, the folks at Arena Stage shine brighter than the chandeliers at the Embassy Ball. Classically top-tier musical numbers were not a disappointment, and though the entire cast was solid, the hands-down star of this show is Manna Nichols as Eliza Doolittle in her first role at Arena Stage. As soon as she began the second song of the show, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” it was clear that Nichols was going to carry the evening. And so she did. Her performance invoked empathy and as I look at the songs I starred as my favorites, they are almost exclusively hers, including: “Loverly,” “Just You Wait,” and my favorite, “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Ensemble performances were fantastically choreographed and balanced the intense one-on-one Higgins/Eliza relationship, particularly during “Get Me to the Church on Time.” While I didn’t care at all about Eliza’s father’s marriage, I did care that the entire ensemble was freewheelin’ about for what felt like five joyous minutes. The scene I was most looking forward to, the pompous events at the Royal Ascot horse race, was another high-hatted ensemble highlight of the evening, with the cast donning brighter dresses than the epic black and white garb of the movie. If you’ve never seen the scene from the movie, please watch it, it’s for your own good. Also, a shoutout to costume designer Judith Bowden, whose fantastic designs somehow bordered a fashion line I didn’t know existed between Will&Kate royal wedding hats, “Alice in Wonderland,” any given Keira Knightley period piece, Rent, and Gaga-inspired bedazzled jackets and boots. That is to say, the cast looked like Williamsburg hipsters showing enthusiasm.

From a stylistic perspective, the portrayal of the passage of time inside Professor Higgins’ house as Eliza unsuccessfully practices her proper accent is fantastically creative. As she continues to repeat, “The ryne, in Spyne, falls mynely on the plynes,” or other aural atrocities to Higgins’ mounting frustrations, the lights dim for a moment as the servants sing a slow deliberate chorus and shuffle the furniture around the room and subtly change a dress or a tie. This happens so many times that the audience starts to mirror Higgins’ frustrations at Eliza’s slow pace of process, which leads to our shared elation when Eliza finally gets it right and she, Higgins, and Pickering break into the giddy “The Rain In Spain” with some flamenco, tango (not quite Spanish, but okay), and bullfighting thrown in.

Lastly, I hadn’t recognized him earlier, but the moment that Freddy began singing “On the Street Where You Live,” I realized this was Curly, the lead from last year’s production of Oklahoma!, back on the same stage! The actor, Nicholas Rodriguez, has such a remarkably beautiful voice I hadn’t remembered what he looked like until I heard him again. He is great playing Freddy but I almost wished they’d made up an excuse for him to be on stage more often; “Show Me,” the Freddy/Eliza song, was the vocal performance of the evening.

The clear bottom-line from all of this: I’ve referenced three Julie Andrews movies and one musical in this hodgepodge mess. She’s awesome. And so is Arena Stage’s production of My Fair Lady, go see it.

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