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The Game Plan

After Nearly a Century, “My Fair Lady” Is More Relevant Than Ever

Posted by Carten Cordell / Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

myfairlady

"My Fair Lady" follows Eliza Doolittle as she transforms from Cockney street urchin to well-mannered aristocrat. / Illustration by Jon Foster

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC
When: Through Jan. 6
Cost: $45–$94
Call: 202-488-3300
Online: arenastage.org

Meet Henry Higgins. He’s a Professor of Phonetics and a lifelong bachelor of 40 years. He comes from a family of wealth and holds a healthy disdain toward the “47 percent.” He would probably throw a catatonic fit if he heard the term, “YOLO”—though that’s not saying much as he is prone to unprovoked tantrums.

He also lives in London 100 years ago.

Higgins, played by Benedict Campbell, is the obstreperous genius at the heart of “My Fair Lady,” a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Although it’s set in 1912, it still serves as an eerily close commentary of today’s movement between social classes and degradation of the English language.

The musical opens when Higgins, a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (Manna Nichols) and a famous linguist named Colonel Pickering (Thomas Adrian Simpson) all meet by happenstance. Unfazed by Doolittle’s nearly incomprehensible speech, Higgins claims he can replace her accent with a proper one and turn her into a duchess within a span of six months, which then evolves into a bet between the two scholars.

What results is a hilarious comedy of errors for Doolittle as she attempts to learn her manners and her vowels. At times, we feel we are Doolittle, struggling through the strange societal norms seemingly established for no other reason than to confound, while at others we are Higgins, who manages to lose his wits so often it’s a wonder he ever finds them.

But perhaps what is most endearing about “My Fair Lady” is the love story that slowly unfolds between the naïve and coquettish Doolittle and the stubborn professor. Despite his many missteps, misogynistic nature and vast age difference, a magnetism stronger than her accent pulls them together. And as she learns how to properly enunciate “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” he learns how to care affectionately.

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Henry Higgins (Benedict Campbell) gives dictation lessons to Eliza Doolittle (Manna Nichols). Photo credit: Suzanne Blue Star Boy

“My Fair Lady” is one of those musicals with infectiously catchy, hum-in-the-elevator musical numbers such as “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Nichols and Campbell have beautifully crafted singing voices and they let it shine. The costumes match Broadway in their quality, whether they’re imitations of the royal elite or steampunk-inspired street beggars.

The cast does a “bloody splendid job” of portraying its characters, and with British accents so believable, it might be surprising that many of them hail from Northern Virginia, including:
Thomas Adrian Simpson, Colonel Pickering (Fredericksburg)
Sherri Edelen, Mrs. Pearce/Queen of Transylvania (Fredericksburg)
Catherine Flye, Mrs. Higgins (Arlington)
Rayanne Gonzales, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill (Dale City)
Joe Peck, ensemble (Arlington)
Bev Appleton, ensemble (McLean)
Erin Driscoll, ensemble (Annandale)

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The "Theatre-In-The-Round" style of Arena Stage's Fichandler Stage ensures there are no bad seats in the house. / Photo credit: Richard Anderson

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