In the meantime, he berates the young woman, eventually breaking her as one would a colt. As often happens, the stage musical has been overshadowed by the film version. Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, who played Doolittle and Higgins, made the roles iconic and their own.
Unfortunately, Manna Nichols (Eliza) and Benedict Campbell (Higgins) can’t carry off the complexity of the story by the strength of their personalities.
This is, beneath its lovely Edwardian plumage, a dark story where Doolittle’s extreme makeover leaves her essentially homeless with a suitcase full of pretty clothes and few options. Where the lower-class Doolittle has a certain freedom of movement and autonomy of choice, by the end of the play she has neither. She is dependent. This transformation is symbolized by the caged bird at the side of the stage. The audience watches as Doolittle becomes the caged songbird.
The darkness of this story is made palatable in the film by the underlying love story and chemistry between the protagonists. In this version, however, Doolittle and Higgins share no chemistry to speak of and seem to be more like co-workers than potential lovers.
Neither Nichols nor Campbell were able to get at the deep flaws and complexities of their characters’ internal journey. Further, none of the main characters — Doolittle, Higgins or Alfred Doolittle — had a strong grasp of the English accent and dipped distractingly to their American voices.
There were three exceptions to the overall disappointment.
Nicholas Rodriguez as Freddy Eynsford-Hill injected his performance with a surprising level of psychological depth. By simply shooting an uncomfortable look across the stage after he realizes that the alcoholic Alfred Doolittle (James Saito) is Eliza’s father, we see him begin to understand the woman he claims to love. Rodriguez’s Freddy isn’t simply lovesick and pretty, he is complicated and sexual. In short, he is re-imagined.
Another high point of the musical is the wonderful ensemble. They are tightly directed and wonderfully exuberant. There is a moment early in the play where they erupt in a gorgeous percussive band. The ensemble gives this revival its major moments of humor and fun.
Finally, the music is wonderful, but it always is. It’s worth going just to sing along with.
But Molly Smith, one of the best directors we have in D.C., has let her cast and the audience down in this production.
Smith is known for pushing the boundaries, but she kept the musical too closely linked to the movie. She should have let her cast stretch and play within the confines of their characters. That way they might have rediscovered some of the complexities of the Shaw play that were lost the 1964 film version. Unfortunately, Smith’s struggle to reinvent this familiar story falls short.
Fun at the Pub
The Shakespeare Theater Company has taken over the top floor of the Bier Baron tavern to present “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.” This is the second production the company has heaved across the pond, and the city should give them collective thanks for doing so.