“I could have watched all night, I could have watched all night…and still have begged for more!” “My Fair Lady” is currently running through January 6, 2013 at Arena Stage. I suggest you call right now, before you even finish this revue and get your tickets! What a production! This is my favorite Arena Stage produced show that I have ever seen there. Director Molly Smith has outdone herself. The casting is spot-on and the choreography by Arena newcomer, Daniel Pelzig is fresh and dynamic. With a “STOMP” inspired dance break in “With a Little Bit of Luck” and every dance expertly delivered throughout the show. This show is a full blown, Broadway-caliber musical from the set, to the actors, to the smallest detail of blocking.
Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins is divine. He is the best Higgins that I have ever seen. His charm, mixed with biting wit and the right sophistication is what makes him a terrific Higgins. What makes him heads above is his timing and his singing. Not only can this Higgins actually sing, but he’s good! As opposed to going with a statement that I cannot stand, “well, he doesn’t need to sing or be the best singer”, that is (excuse me) crap! It’s a musical, everyone should be able to sing, especially the leads. Nothing burns me more than to hear that statement uttered and usually it is a thorn in my side when seeing productions of “My Fair Lady”. He is very natural in his performance and a total delight.
Manna Nichols as the fair lady herself is exquisite. With her outstanding set of pipes and her comedic timing, she is a pleasure to hear and a joy to watch. She is the right combination of feisty indignation meshed with delicate grace. She captures the pure essence of Eliza and keeps us interested from start to finish. As an actor, she is the perfect foil for Campbell’s Higgins and her embellishments of her disdain at Higgins is fantastic to watch him recreate. Their chemistry builds in the perfect ascension to where they leave you wondering where they have ended up (a very good directing choice, as well). Back to Manna…her high notes ring throughout the theatre with an effortless clarity and tone. She has excellent control of her voice and uses her actions to show her upset in songs like “Just You Wait”, instead of muddling the song. The chemistry between Col. Pickering and Eliza, along with Higgins during “The Rain in Spain” is outstanding; a very well-rehearsed number, but natural and fluid. Manna really shines during, “I Could Have Danced All Night”. There were slight touches of comedy that make it real and sincere, but again her singing captures the audience. She is a real find and I hope to see her again!
Thomas Adrian Simpson as Col. Pickering is bright and highly lovable. He adds the right touch of sweetness to Higgins’ sour. He too, has a “loverly” singing voice and a natural ease onstage. Also, of great note is Sherri L. Edelen as Mrs. Pearce and Catherine Flye as Mrs. Higgins. Both women take control of the stage with just a look or a gesture. Neither is distracting, but somehow steal their scenes. Edelen as Mrs. Pearce uses her time wisely to create a comedic character that can very easily be a throw-away. Flye’s use of Mrs. Higgins’ quips is smooth and unassuming, until you realize that you want to clap every time she leaves the stage.
Nicholas Rodriguez returns to Arena Stage, after his triumphant turn as Curly in the hit, “Oklahoma!”. This Helen Hayes Award winner takes charge and makes you take notice of Freddy Eynsford-Hill. His reactions to Eliza onstage are perfection and his hypnotizing tenor casts a spell on you. I haven’t heard sighs like that from an audience, since I saw Harry Connick, Jr. in “The Pajama Game”. The same went here, all he had to sing were a couple of notes and the collective sigh filled the theatre and the thunderous applause and nods of agreement spread like wildfire. You can’t understand that Eliza doesn’t just jump into his arms and say, “Alright Gov’na”…lol He is charming and sells upper-class British, along with his soap star good looks! I especially loved his acting during, “Show Me”. Both Nichols and Rodriguez shined in this scene. She set them up and hit them out of the park, much like her chemistry and timing with Campbell.
There were only a couple of things that I didn’t love about this production. While I appreciate the choice to cast someone of Asian decent to play Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father because Manna is of Asian decent. It makes sense to not stray too far from a lineage perspective (even though Eliza would have been far from Asian). I cannot help to think that a major reason James Saito was cast, was because of that?! He may have been having an off-night, but he lacked an exuberance that makes Alfred Doolittle a most-memorable part. He was a bit bland and his accent left a lot to be desired. I also did not care for the fact that Eliza, during “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” did some dancing. Her dancing was excellent; my dismay is with the type of dance. Most of it was fine, but some more refined dance moves were incorporated, which does not go along with the character. However, the majority of the dance is terrific and the ensemble is fantastic. I also loved the quartet that sang back-up to Eliza, it was beautiful.
I also didn’t care for most of the make-up design through-out. Eliza’s was too washed out and was in desperate need of some blush and a change of make-up for the Embassy Ball. Just like the costumes were escalated for her, the make-up needed to be also. I don’t know why people don’t follow through on that aspect of design. It is usually a lacking factor, especially on the men. Lights drown you out and everyone needs make-up on-stage, just at varying degrees! There were a couple of female ensemble members who had it right, which made me think of a more amateurish production, where everyone tends to be in charge of themselves, so you get a very unbalanced outcome. Something that was a departure from the norm were the costumes, designed by Judith Bowden. Though the show is set in 1912, the choice was made to go with a more unique and unexpected approach of using a steampunk motif. While a traditional approach is what is typical, it is the perfect example of when thinking outside of the box pays off! Bowden used the theme for the lower-class throughout the show and the palette was carefully chosen. As opposed to the traditional black and white costumes (made famous in the movie) during the Ascot scene, Bowden chose to go with a jewel-tone for each cast member, Eliza’s being the most divine! Her hat was phenomenal and hearkened back to the steampunk-theme. However, I did not like the choice of wigs for that scene. Again, it was unbalanced.
It was a case where the theme was pushed too far, but not carried out correctly either. Some of the ensembles wigs were in a tone (not found in nature and absurd for the time period) that matched their jewel-toned gowns, but others were in just natural colors. It needed to be one way or the other and the best idea would have been to halt the theme and go for what is appropriate for the time, for the upper-class. Anne Nesmith, as Wig Designer was able to get away with non-traditional hair for the lower-class, to go along with the steampunk costumes, but it was pushing it too far to try to incorporate that for the upper-class and especially because it was not used on everyone! The wigs themselves were stunning though, again, especially Eliza’s. Getting back to what I loved…the entire show is a delight and I highly recommend that you try to see any performance that you can!!
Overall Grade: A
Venue for production: A, there isn’t a bad seat in the Fichandler and the blocking is perfectly done to make sure everyone catches just about everything. The metro is just a couple of blocks away and even though it is a longer musical, anyone would make the trains on a weeknight. There is also valet parking.
Choreography: A+, very well-thoughtout and executed!
Direction, A+, as I said, the blocking makes sense and a lot of choices that were made for this production, really paid off and added to the show tremendously.
Individual performances: A+’s all the way around, unfortunately except for Saito, B
Make-up: C- Wigs: B- Costumes: A+
TRR Theatre Revue by: Denise A.