Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith has long taken a non-traditional approach to American musical classics, so it's not surprising that for her new production of My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe's beloved musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, she set her sights on choosing a racially diverse cast. Fortunately, they're also a very talented group of actors who help make this three-hour-show mostly fly by.
Her bold choice to go with Chinese-American actress Manna Nichols in the role of undereducated British flower girl Eliza Doolittle has paid off nicely, as Nichols has perfected both the character's crass Cockney accent as well as the refined dignity of the well-born lady. More importantly, the young actress is a commanding stage presence with a voice like an angel. By the time she sways across the stage singing "I Could Have Danced All Night" -- a little bit giddy, a little bit proud -- she has won the heart of everyone in the house.
As Professor Henry Higgins, the linguistics expert who bets he can turn Eliza into a proper lady in only six months, Canadian actor Benedict Campbell is believably gruff, cocky and arrogant, yet manages to stay sympathetic even while berating his pupil. And when the two share a jubilant rendition of "The Rain in Spain," it's one of the best parts of the show's first act.
The biggest problem with the production is that there's virtually no romantic chemistry between Campbell and Nichols. By the end of the play, you're supposed to believe that a possibility of love exists between Eliza and Dr. Higgins, but that element just isn't there.
In the supporting roles, Thomas Adrian Simpson is excellent as Colonel Pickering, Higgins' friend and fellow language lover. He and Campbell have a great back-and-forth repartee, especially in the song "Hymn to Him." The delightful Catherine Flye as Henry's refined mom and the lovely Sherri L. Edelen as Higgins' maid, Mrs. Pearce, both get laughs in every scene they are in. Indeed, you wish each of them had more stage time.
Nicholas Rodriguez is in fine voice as Freddy Einsford-Hill, the young upper-class gentleman smitten with Eliza, and James Saito as Eliza's deadbeat dad, Alfred P. Doolittle, aptly leads the big "Get Me to the Church on Time" number, although his singing gets lost among the strong voices of the chorus.
Costume designer Judith Bowden and wig designer Anne Nesmith transform the actors from street merchants to servants to aristocrats effortlessly, creating the perfect look for each scene.
Best of all, choreographer Daniel Pelzig gets the most out of the large energetic ensemble in his elaborate dance numbers for "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time." Smith and Pelzig also make sure to have the harmonious cast take advantage of every inch of the smallish Finchandler stage. In fact, one of the most memorable moments occurs during the "Ascot Gavotte" sequence, when the entire ensemble is dressed to the nines to watch a horse race, and slowly turn around in a full circle to mimic watching the race.