Theatrical review: My Fair Lady

DIRECTOR: MOLLY SMITH

Venue: Arena Stage (Washington DC)
Reviewed by Josh Aterovis

A Steampunk My Fair Lady? How loverly!

Illustrated image of a woman in steampunk clothing holding a parasol, in which is an image of another woman on a Victorian street.When I first heard Arena Stage in Washington D.C. was staging a Steampunk production of My Fair Lady, the classic Lerner and Loewe musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and perhaps best-known for its 1964 film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, I was a bit skeptical. Would they rewrite it to have some more Sci-Fi or Fantasy bent? Would Eliza Doolittle be a time traveler from a dystopian future? Would Professor Higgins be a mad scientist instead of a phoneticist? Turns out, I needn’t have worried: for better or worse, the production remains true to the original book. The steampunk elements come entirely via costuming.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I have never been a fan of the film version. When I received an invitation to the final dress rehearsal before previews, I only went to see how the steampunk elements might manifest themselves. I have to say, I’m glad I did. I found the show to be utterly charming from start to finish.

At heart, My Fair Lady is a makeover story. Eliza Doolittle is a low-class Victorian lass selling flowers on the streets on London when she bumps into Colonel Pickering. Eliza’s crass Cockney accent is mocked by Pickering’s associate Professor Henry Higgins, a linguistics expert, who bets Pickering that he can teach her how to speak properly and pass her off as a proper lady within six months. Pickering doesn’t take the bet right away, but Eliza, hoping to better herself and get off the street, begs Prof. Higgins to make good on the bet anyway. Higgins agrees and the story plays out as you’d expect if you’ve watched any of the numerous variations over the years, from Pretty Woman to She’s All That.

The show itself, directed by Molly Smith, is staged in Arena’s Finchandler Stage, which is theater-in-the-round. The set, designed by Donald Eastman, is fairly minimal, with an oversized painted Victorian floral carpet design on the floor and Georgian doorway facades at each of the four corner entrances. All other staging is on wheels and trundled in and out, or in the case of a birdcage, lantern and two grand, crystal-laden chandeliers, dropped down from the ceiling, as scenes necessitate. For instance, a street scene might involve flower carts, a glowing, ‘coal-burning’ potbellied stove, and a few kegs on a wheel barrow with a lantern overhead, whereas Prof. Higgins’ study boasts a couple of desks and chairs, a love seat, the aforementioned birdcage and a chaise lounge.

The staging and choreography are excellent, each using every inch of the stage to its advantage and full of constant movement —all the better to keep the actor’s backs from being to any one side of the audience for too long. The choreography by Daniel Pelzig is at times absolutely stunning, especially the large ensemble street scenes. “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” were real standouts, especially the musical breakdown in “Luck” and the rousing athleticism in “Church.”

Now to the best bits: the costuming and the acting.

The costuming by Judith Bowden is, without any exaggeration, breathtaking. Her concept is that the lower class denizens of this production’s London sport steampunk-inspired outfits —complete with goggles —while the upper class dons an Alexander McQueen inspired wardrobe. It works remarkably well. The outfits of both classes are filled with eye-popping color and fantastical details.The hats from the Ascot Races scenes alone are worth the price of admission, but I have to admit, I was coveting the steampunk costumes —especially that one brown coat that laced in the back. Okay, and some of the gentlemen’s jackets from the Ascot scene. And their spats. Fine, I want it all!

Finally, there are the actors. Without question, the show belongs to Eliza and Prof. Higgins, and the stars of this production—Manna Nichols and Benedict Campbell, respectively—more than live up the challenge. The lovely Nichols, especially, is a constant delight. She pulls off both the Cockney accent and the refined Queen’s English equally well, and her singing voice is divine. I had her voice singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” stuck in my head for days…and I didn’t mind at all. Campbell, meanwhile, manages to strike just the right note of intolerable smugness and vulnerability as Prof. Higgins, the latter coming fully to the fore in his final number, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

For the most part, the supporting cast is equally strong: Thomas Adrian Simpson as Colonel Pickering, Nicholas Rodriguez as Freddy and Catherine Flye (channeling Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess to great effect) are all excellent. Sherri L. Edelen is comic gold as Mrs. Pearce, constantly threatening to steal every scene she’s on stage.

The only sour note in this production is James Saito as Eliza’s deadbeat dad, Alfred Doolittle. Saito can’t seem to nail down an accent —veering wildly between American, vaguely Asian and Australian, but never coming close to British —and he’s often almost unintelligible. He’s also strangely flat in what should be a very charismatic role and his singing voice was easily the weakest of the main roles. Charitably, it was the final dress rehearsal so maybe those kinks will be ironed out in previews. Before the show, Smith cautioned that it was still very much a work-in-progress.

All in all, while not terribly Steampunk —there are no electro-ray guns or clockwork anything —this is still a whimsically wonderful production. The steampunk additions to the costuming does perhaps make it a little more current without distracting, but it’s actually a fairly faithful adaptation of a well-loved show, and that may be to its credit. It is, after all, quite loverly as it is.

My Fair Lady will be playing at Arena Stage now through January 6, 2013. For more information or tickets, visit http://www.arenastage.org/shows-tickets/the-season/productions/my-fair-lady/.

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