Arena Stage cast performs competent ‘My Fair Lady’

Manna+Nichols+dances+as+Eliza+Doolittle+in+%22My+Fair+Lady%22+at+the+Arena+Stage+theater+in+Washington%2C+D.C.

Manna Nichols dances as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” at the Arena Stage theater in Washington, D.C.

Manna Nichols dances as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” at the Arena Stage theater in Washington, D.C.

How does one take a blathering Cockney guttersnipe and transform her from a frisky flower girl to a well-respected, elegant lady? This tricky task is taken upon by none other than Professor Henry Higgins in the Arena Stage’s production of “My Fair Lady,” a clever rags-to-riches tale.

The production staged at the Arena Stage saw noticeable changes and variations from other productions. Under artistic director Molly Smith, who also directed the Arena Stage’s hit “Oklahoma” in 2010, the musical was

performed in a theatre in the round, with audience members sitting on all sides of the stage. The show featured Chinese-American/Native-American Manna Nichols as the female protagonist Eliza Doolittle and Asian-American actor James Saito as her father, Alfie. Though many shows have featured racially diverse casting in recent years, such as the Broadway hit “Spring Awakening,” the father-daughter pair has usually been portrayed by Caucasian actors.

Written by Alan Jay Lerner and music composed by Frederick Loewe, “My Fair Lady” is based on George Bernard Shaw’s drama “Pygmalion.” Set in Edwardian London, the musical chronicles the life of Doolittle, a Cockney peasant girl from Covent Gardens. Higgins, a phoneticist, takes Doolittle in and makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can turn Doolittle from an unschooled flower girl to a proper lady in no more than 6 months. “My Fair Lady” was awarded the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1957 and secured six other wins.

The star of the evening was clearly Nichols, who fabulously portrayed the fiery Doolittle with ease and radiance. Nichols sang like an angel throughout the night, and her high soprano voice truly did the beloved classic “I Could’ve Danced All Night” justice. Benedict Campbell, playing the role of Higgins, tended to talk-sing through his numbers but truly grasped the persona of the misogynistic professor.

Nicholas Rodriguez’s performance as the smitten Freddy Eynsford-Hill charmed the audience with his handsome appearance and buttery tenor voice. Rodriguez received one of the loudest ovations of the night with his rendition of the delightful “On the Street Where You Live,” and hit every note and riff effortlessly. Another well-rehearsed role was that of Pickering, played by Thomas Adrien Simpson, who was a welcome comic relief character and humored the audience in “The Rain in Spain” and other scenes with Doolittle and Higgins.

The costumes of “My Fair Lady,” designed by Judith Bowden, were truly a spectacle, from Doolittle’s beautiful white ball gown that left the audience breathless to the Steampunk-inspired clothing for the Cockneys. Choreography was jaw-dropping and full of flips and turns, especially in the Cockney numbers. The dance sequence at the Embassy Ball seemed utterly magical and akin to one might see in a Disney film.

While some scenes tended to drag on and the ending left a little to be desired, the cast of the Arena Stage put on a memorable performance that left audience members humming the tunes of “My Fair Lady” all the way home.

(This article originally appeared in the December 21, 2012 print edition.)