Lingering Accents

Arena Stage's Molly Smith worked ''to create a ''My Fair Lady'' for modern times''

”I think it’s a universal story that’s quite specific to this moment in time in America,” says Arena Stage’s artistic director Molly Smith, who directed a new production of the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe classic My Fair Lady, which confronts head-on class issues and prejudices. ”Just coming out of this election, when it was all about the 1 percent and the 47 percent, and here we have it just flooding onstage.”

Smith first conceived of this production for Canada’s prestigious Shaw Festival, which celebrates the work of the late, great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. With My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe succeeded in adapting Shaw’s Pygmalion where other greats, including Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter, had failed.

My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady

”The book scenes in it are thought by some to be the best book scenes in musical-theater history,” says Smith. ”And part of that reason is because probably 75 percent of the book comes directly from Pygmalion.” And then, of course, there are those sterling tunes, from ”I Could Have Danced All Night” to ”I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Of Benedict Campbell, the only actor Smith exported from last year’s Shaw Festival, the director says, ”He literally prowls the stage. He has excellent command of the language [and] understands Shaw’s world view, Shavian wit.” Campbell plays Professor Henry Higgins, who helps to transform poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle – played by Manna Nichols, whom Smith calls ”an extraordinary young woman [with] a voice like an angel” – into a rich-looking and rich-sounding woman. In the process, Higgins himself is transformed. ”[Eliza] completely opens his heart,” says Smith, adding, ”Both [characters] move into being different human beings by the end of the story.”

Much like her work a few seasons ago with Oklahoma!, Smith’s intention was ”to create a My Fair Lady for modern times” – one that acknowledges a class system, even in America. ”This is a musical,” she says, ”that lands right in the sweet spot of the underclass, the middle class and the over-class – and the clash between the three.” ‘

My Fair Lady runs to Jan. 6, 2013, at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. ‘Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.