A Touch of Class: Arena’s “My Fair Lady”

Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins and Manna Nichols as Eliza Doolittle Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy.

In a bright, colorful package brimming with beloved songs, Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith once more invites Washington audiences to delve into the American musical in her production of “My Fair Lady.” More than mere confection, this show reveals the genius of landmark musicals of the 1950s: Beneath the layers of delightful music, dance and humor, timeless themes of social class and persistent prejudice are laid bare.

As Smith observes, “In a world increasingly blown apart by the dynamics of the very rich and the very poor, this musical hits the sweet spot of our contemporary awareness of class.” Without devices like modern dress or a change in venue to overtly take on today’s class tensions, Smith’s faithful rendition makes the connection between the 19th and 21st centuries plain and provocative. 

It all begins with a wager between two world-renowned phonetics experts, the affable Col. Pickering (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and the ornery Prof. Higgins (Benedict Campbell). When Eliza Doolittle (Manna Nichols), a coarse but proud flower girl from London’s gritty streets, asks Higgins to teach her proper speech and manners, he bets his friend Pickering that within six months he can transform her so thoroughly that she can pass as a duchess at the embassy ball.

From the start, Campbell deftly shows Higgins’ total disregard for the humanity of his subject as he considers her request for lessons. “It’s almost irresistible,” he exclaims. “She’s so deliciously low—so horribly dirty.” When Pickering asks, “Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?” Higgins replies, “Oh no. No! Not any feelings that we need bother about.” Yet Campbell manages to mix this candid condescension with the absence of malice and impeccable manners that make Higgins’ behavior tolerable and sometimes even endearing. He is simply oblivious to feelings of any sort.

As Pickering, Simpson is an ideal complement to Campbell: more good-humored, sensitive and humane. Although he is occasionally appalled by Higgins’ beliefs, he’s still enthralled by the professor’s brilliance—frequently apparent in his priceless facial expressions.

Nichols’ Eliza shines and holds her own amid these haughty trainers, doing a respectable job with her character’s cockney accent and rough demeanor, delivering a repertoire of shrieks, cries and growls. Nichols is equally at ease in hurling insults as she is in singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” in a voice as sweet and clear as a bell.

As Higgins’ grand experiment unfolds, the rest of the cast brings the characters and attitudes of 1912 London to life. Catherine Flye is a standout as Higgins’ mother, a witty and refreshingly open-minded woman who views Eliza with skepticism before becoming her greatest friend and champion.

Nicholas Rodriguez plays Freddy, Eliza’s hapless suitor, with the same agility, earnestness and fabulous voice that won raves for his performance as Curly in Arena’s production of Oklahoma last year. And as Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, Sherri Edelen visibly keeps her reactions in check while gently challenging but always supporting her employer’s whims and demands.

The versatile members of the ensemble portray the hardscrabble residents of a London tenement, forming an exuberant chorus singing in bright harmony. Then they pivot to play the snooty and staid members of the upper crust, who watch the races at Ascot and dance at the embassy ball without showing the slightest trace of joy. They perform in seamlessly alternating scenes of poverty and wealth evoked by Donald Eastman’s sets—a street market of carts and flowers, an upper-class home with Victorian furnishings, and a ballroom illuminated by enormous crystal chandeliers.

Costume designer Judith Bowden’s creations show stark contrasts as well. Although her “steampunk” themed attire for the lower class is a little over the top—veering toward “A Clockwork Orange” meets the circus—its inventive flair underscores a pronounced freedom of expression. These folks clearly live beyond the constraints of wealth and privilege, reflected in the nearly monochromatic, tailored Alexander McQueen-style costumes of the upper class.

With such a large cast, Daniel Pelzig’s choreography occasionally struggles to sort out their movements on a small stage in the round, at times appearing to leave the players just milling about or marching in circles. But at its best, the rigid movements of polite society, in perfect formation, demonstrate strict adherence to rules, while the raucous jigs and stomps of street folks, especially in the celebratory “Get Me to the Church on Time,” showcase their more freewheeling ways.

For someone who first saw My Fair Lady on the big screen as a six-year-old, the show’s focus on social undercurrents is something of a revelation. Through the lens of a child’s eye, it’s just a Cinderella story about Eliza’s rescue from poverty and ignorance by a worldly man of means. Certainly even adult audiences can be swept away by Eliza’s rise from the gutter to high society.

But beneath the romantic surface some serious questions burn: Can people break the bonds of class by reinventing their speech and behavior? When people join a “higher” class, what do they lose? And when a lower-class girl of the streets is transformed into a lady who can pass for a princess, who deserves the credit—the lady or her tutor?

The play’s leads rise to the challenge of dissecting these issues under the veil of resolving Eliza’s relationship with Higgins. After Higgins and Pickering finish congratulating themselves for Eliza’s smashing success at the embassy ball—singing the triumphant “You Did It!” as she smolders at the edge of the stage—Eliza realizes her coaches see her as a mere instrument, not a partner who made their vision possible. And despite Eliza’s veneer of refined speech, impeccable manners and expensive clothes, Higgins shows no more regard for her than he had before, reflexively calling her a “gutter snipe” in response to her anger.

Eliza sums it all up in a heart to heart with Higgins’ mother: “You see Mrs. Higgins, apart from the things one can pick up, the difference between a flower girl and a lady is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will.”

Soon after, the play’s most significant transformation occurs: Confronted with Eliza’s emergence as a woman who stands up for her humanity, Higgins changes into a man who can respect—and ultimately admit his attachment to—a member of the lower class, and a woman at that.

Unraveling this web of emotions and issues takes the lion’s share of Act II, but it’s worth it. In their personal chemistry and heated exchanges, Nichols and Campbell earn our investment in their relationship—and the battle to overcome class distinctions. They may not get married and live happily ever after, but for just this once the chasm of class is nicely bridged.

My Fair Lady is playing at Arena Stage through Jan. 6, 2013.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.