Funny, joyful and generally festive, Arena Stage's My Fair Lady is a pleaser. Grey heads will bob nostalgically, children will delight, and lovers of the genre will hear the clever words and catchy melodies of Lerner and Loewe delivered ably and aptly. If there is a slight edge in the so-called ''steampunk'' costuming and a certain intensity in protégé Eliza Doolittle and mentor Mr. Higgins, it is there more for those intent on looking than those intent on enjoying. In other words, though director Molly Smith has thought hard on her subject, the interpretive touches shadow – versus derail – the juggernaut of tradition.
And this is no bad thing. There aren't many who want their iconic musicals messed with.
My Fair Lady
(Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy)
Carrying the production as any Higgins must, Benedict Campbell delivers his grouchily irrepressible man with excellent comic timing and an authenticity that starts with his mannerisms and ends with his accent. More a talker than a singer, he nevertheless carries a convincing, expressive tune that fits nicely the professorial persona. On a subtler level, Campbell also manages to walk a fine line: Though this is a Higgins expressing his contempt and objectification of Eliza with a startling acid, Campbell maintains a kind of innocent energy throughout. Thus, though Smith may draw notice to the class and gender-based bitterness that has endured into the 21st century, Campbell rescues these moments with the powerful salve of his bumptiously delivered, self-absorbed humor. No one is out to ruin the party.
Still, it is a balancing act, and the one casualty in the seesaw is Higgins's chemistry, or lack thereof, with Eliza. Even at his most engaged, Higgins never gets beyond avuncular; not when he sees Eliza in the temperamental throes of trying to learn, not when she appears in a bedazzling ball gown, and certainly not in the final scenes when some kind of love supposedly enters the equation. Throw in the fervor of his contempt for her class and gender and it all seems even more improbable. And yet it's hard to blame Campbell. There just isn't room for subtler sparks to fly.
As the recalcitrant Eliza, Manna Nichols sings with precise sweetness, ear-pleasingly sure in tone and texture. A confident presence, she commands the stage, dances with flair and, when the moment is called for, is as easily rowdy as she is quietly expressive. And she undoubtedly looks the part (especially with Smith's engaging choice to make her and her father Asian-British).
But – and is a rather big ''but'' for a musical that is so utterly and completely centered on language – she cannot carry the accents. Her cockney is cockeyed and her proper British English is bungled. It is a major distraction and it hinders the transformation at the heart of the play. None of it matters when she breaks into song, but there just aren't enough of them to diminish the problem.
Then there is the problem of the chemistry. She suggests not even the slightest hint of frisson toward Higgins, not when they war and not when they concede.
As Higgins's sidekick and conscience, Col. Pickering, Thomas Adrian Simpson does well with the accent, offers good comic timing, and brings an unassuming authenticity to his upper-class Briton. He balances well the uncompromising Higgins. As long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (and later the Queen of Transylvania), Sherri L. Edelen is nicely disapproving of her grumpy boss and provides the kind of presence that assures that all will remain comfortingly decent, despite the odd circumstances. As Eliza's father Alfred, James Saito cuts an interesting figure and offers good comic timing, but his accent is another botched job.
Keeping early 20th century London's life front and center, a cleverly choreographed, cohesive ensemble/chorus dance, sing and scamper through a simple but thoughtful set with skill and energy. Turning from raucous, streetwise ragamuffins into Ascot fashionistas and back again with humor and understatement, they are an entertaining, amusing and not-so-silent commentary. Standouts are Bev Appleton, Erin Driscoll, Rayanne Gonzales and Jennifer Irons.
In a smaller part that shines, Catherine Flye as Mrs. Higgins, the mother who watches with impatience and amusement her son's irascible ways, owns her scenes with mesmerizing verve. As Eliza's honey-toned suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Nicholas Rodriguez is so convincingly fun and warm-blooded, one is left wondering why on earth Eliza would chose a life of keeping track of Higgins's slippers versus one with Freddy crawling around the bedroom after her – but such are the vagaries of the human heart, apparently.
Still, it is one of two odd little cliff-hangers. The other is the royal ball at which Higgins debuts his fully morphed Eliza. After wowing all concerned, she dances with Higgins's nemesis, the famous linguist Zoltan Karpathy (played ably by Benjamin L. Horen). After some mimed conversation, the scene ends with an obviously alarmed Karpathy rushing off as if to denounce Eliza as a fraud. Yet when we return, it is to a post-ball victory party at which Higgins declares Eliza an unmitigated success. This disparity is never explained, at least not recognizably. Though it may be a minor matter in an evening that moves with energy and excellent pace, it is, like the question of, ''What happened to Freddy?'' one that lingers.
For those who know this musical like the back of their hand, such issues will take a backseat to the more burning questions of whether the famous lines are delivered with spirit and the songs fly. Here they most certainly are and do. Whatever thoughts may be provoked by questions of class, sexism or confusing accents, before long someone is breaking into song, dance or both and for those who are here for their fix, it's all about the joy.