My Fair Lady

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Editorial Review

'My Fair lady' review
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, November 20, 2012

After listening to the luscious renditions of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “On the Street Where You Live” in Arena Stage’s often tunefully adept if dramatically inert revival of “My Fair Lady,” you may never feel worthy of singing them in the shower again. Manna Nichols and Nicholas Rodriguez, the Eliza Doolittle and Freddie Eynsford-Hill of director Molly Smith’s new production, apply to their vocal performances a show-tune shimmer that does thorough justice to two of the musical’s beloved standards.

But the rush one experiences when these actors hit their high notes fails to flare at any other moment of this uninspired evening in Arena’s flagship Fichandler Stage. The sparkling score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe retains much of its fizz, courtesy of the 13-piece orchestra under Paul Sportelli’s crisp command. And here and there, a performer in costume designer Judith Bowden’s gorgeous Victorian finery and orchid-evoking hats shows us how it’s done, a feat accomplished most winningly by Catherine Flye, as a wry and wonderfully wise Mrs. Higgins.

Yet in the cockney numbers that should supply “My Fair Lady” with its earthy exuberance and, even more essentially, in the romantically charged war between flinty speech professor Henry Higgins (Benedict Campbell) and frisky flower girl Eliza, the show comes across as in need of nourishment. “Get Me to the Church on Time” can usually be counted on to give Act 2 its effervescence. Here, as presided over by James Saito’s utterly anemic Alfred P. Doolittle, the song runs out of steam as the ensemble runs around quite literally in circles.

Smith scored a noteworthy success with another American musical classic, the “Oklahoma!” that opened Arena’s refurbished home in the fall 2010 and proved such a smash that it was brought back the following summer. The freshness of that enterprise reflected Smith’s affinity for the musical’s hearty frontier spirit and for the common cause embodied by the rough-hewn types making their way in the burgeoning territories of a young nation.

With Shavian characters defined so consciously by class and manner -- the 1956 musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” now being presented by the Washington Stage Guild -- “My Fair Lady” does not readily yield to re-interpretation. Henry is an elitist and misogynist and Eliza is fiery and unschooled. When their edges become too soft, when you cannot fully credit Henry’s cruelty or Eliza’s rawness, the magic in the musical’s love and transformation stories is lost.

I didn’t buy for one minute the beautiful, refined Nichols as a guttersnipe in need of a makeover or the benignly professorial Campbell as a cold brute in Savile Row tailoring. That partly may explain why the first hour or so of this production is leaden; when this Henry sings “I’m an Ordinary Man,” the title words ring too true. In the long dialogue scenes between them, there’s no igniting of the flame. (When you’re bored, you begin noticing little things, as in, why do Campbell’s eyeglasses look as if they belong to an English academic circa 2009?)

It isn’t until the surefire “The Rain in Spain,” well-played by Campbell, Nichols and Thomas Adrian Simpson as Col. Pickering, that any musical energy is generated. Nichols runs with the buoyancy of that number for the famous solo that Lerner and Loewe smartly followed with, lickety-split: her “I Could Have Danced All Night” scales the evening’s highest peak. Soon enough, Rodriguez -- the Curly of Smith’s “Oklahoma!” -- arrives outside the Higgins townhouse on Wimpole Street to croon his blissfully full-bodied version of “On the Street Where You Live.” And to top off the evening’s most successful phase, Nichols’s Eliza materializes for her coming-out at the embassy waltz in a drop-dead ball gown by Bowden, made of silk chiffon with iridescent sequins.

The infusion of “Downton Abbey” chic finds no corresponding down-market panache in the have-not scenes of this “My Fair Lady.” Choreographer Daniel Pelzig seems to have found little to engage his imagination in the slums of London; the dance steps for the cockney chorus in “With a Little Bit of Luck” and later, in “Get Me to the Church on Time,” look perfunctory, and all that Saito’s peculiarly joyless take on Alfie Doolittle manages to do is give bacchanal-level carousing a bad name.

Campbell, who played this role for Smith in the “My Fair Lady” she staged at the Shaw Festival in Ontario in 2011, is a solid actor with a sharp ear for irony. Unlike the unforgettable Rex Harrison, who spoke-sang his way in the part to Broadway immortality -- and won an Oscar for the 1964 film version -- Campbell hews to the melodies. His voice is firm. But as with the unpersuasive roots of Nichols’s coarseness, this Henry has trouble convincing us that he’s not so nice.

Perhaps the impetus to muffle the character’s loud imperfections emanated from a discomfort with the magnitude of Henry’s woman-hating. “Why can’t woman be more like a man?” Henry sings late in the show in “Hymn to Him,” a number that was greeted in the Fich by the sound of crickets. Trailing along is Sherri L. Edelen’s Mrs. Pearce, the vigilant housekeeper, making faces at him behind his back. Too often on this evening, crinkling one’s nose does seem an apt reaction.

PREVIEW: The AristoHats
By Katherine Boyle
Sunday, October 28, 2012

The scene is both iconic and misleading. The hats at Royal Ascot were rarely black and white. But when famed costume designer Cecil Beaton depicted aristocrats in achromatic ensembles for the film adaptation of “My Fair Lady,” he introduced American audiences to Britain’s most prestigious racing event, one where opulent, outrageous hats are more important than the horses.

That’s why the Ascot scene is both a challenge and thrill for Arena Stage’s craftsperson and milliner Deborah Nash. Audiences may expect a spectacle of black-and-white Victorian lace, but at Arena Stage’s upcoming production of “My Fair Lady,” opening Nov. 2, they’ll see a tropical palette of emerald greens, royal blues and rich burgundies, a more realistic portrayal of the topsy-turvy hats on display at Royal Ascot.

“This is a definitely a career highlight,” Nash said. “This will be the largest amount of hats for any show we’ve ever done.”

“These are the plums,” said Arena Stage’s costume director Joe Salasovich. “These are the projects that you hope you to get to do, because they’re eye-catching. But it still has to be sincere to the story. The actor has to wear it with ease.”

And this colorful surprise (now spoiled) is not easy to achieve. Arena Stage’s take on the Ascot scene, imagined by “My Fair Lady” costume designer Judith Bowden, features 11 handcrafted hats by Nash, many of which took more than 30 hours of labor each to create.

But if anyone can outfit stands of racegoers with gasp-inducing headwear, it is Nash, one of Washington’s most prolific milliners. Nash has perfected the processes for building an accessory that is no longer required in even the most formal of American settings. But her talent is in demand in the theater, having made hundreds of fascinators, top hats, strip-straw hats, driving hats and turbans in her roughly 13-year career at Arena Stage. She doesn’t rest, even in the off-season. During the summer, she drives to New Mexico to make hats for the Santa Fe Opera.

Nash has produced enough peaks, points and frills to outfit the entire congregation for a Westminster Abbey wedding. She made the strip-straw hats for the ladies of “Oklahoma!” The Peking Opera headdress for “M. Butterfly.” Nash once fashioned a hat with a built-in tissue box for Adelaide of “Guys and Dolls,” poi-fect for poi-sons with bad, bad colds.

Few area theaters have a milliner with such range: and hats, particularly in musical theater, play an important role. Situated near the actor’s face, where the most memorable action happens, hats must complement the story line on the stage without distracting the audience, actors or dancers.

Her hats verge on fantastical -- her favorite hat is from “The Women” and contains a vulture’s head she made from plaster that sits amidst a nest of black feathers. They must weather years of wear that theater costumes inevitably endure.

And they are archived for history, or at least saved in stock for successive shows that might call for fascinators, top hats or bowlers. Many of Nash’s creations are kept in the Mead Center for American Theater’s massive hat library, a part of their costume shop. There are racks filled with hats created by Nash or other technicians, as well as vintage hats donated period hats from as early as the 1890s.

Salasovich acts as the costume shop’s librarian, using only his acute memory to spout off the details of each work: the actors who wore them, the scenes from the shows they came from, the materials used to make them.

“We have things organized loosely,” Salasovich said. “There’s no card catalogue. The space was built so we could expand into it, but within six months a woman donated a whole vintage store worth of hats. So we’re at capacity now.”

And there are more hats on the way.

For “My Fair Lady,” Nash faces her most massive project yet: She will make, deconstruct, embellish or touch up a total of 85 hats, 11 of which will appear on the women at those “absolutely thrilling” races. While some the men’s top hats were ordered or pulled from stock, she will make sure each is stage-ready. The women’s hats are the most time-consuming. She had only nine weeks to prepare, and only a few weeks before the show’s debut, not a single hat was completed.

“I move all the hats forward at the same pace,” she said. “I rarely finish one and move on to the next. . . . It’s a little daunting, but I’m used to dealing with large quantities.”

And she is used to the exhausting pace: the gripping, ripping, and smashing of materials into dashing concoctions that have become a hallmark of Arena Stage’s impressive costume shop. Indeed, the ensemble production that occurs behind the scenes, one performed by a small cast of talented technicians and designers who toil away for months, may be as dramatic as the show itself.

“People aren’t going to know what hit them with the Ascot hats,” Salasovich said. “They will be among our greatest.”

The hatmaker’s lair, or craftsroom at Arena, contains molds, fabrics, color swatches, and “The Bible,” what Salasovich and Nash affectionately call the book that contains notes on every piece in the entire show.

The process for hatmaking is deceptive because the early stages require elaborate pieces the hat-wearer never sees: the sketches of the design, cardboard 3-D mock-ups of the hat, a mold of the wearer’s head, circumference precisely measured. There are multiple fittings and blocks are amended to precision so the hats are custom-made for the actor wearing them.

For Eliza, Nash built a mold of actor Manna Nichols’s head from insulation foam and built Eliza’s sea foam green hat around it. She used clay to round out the shape of the head to achieve Bowden’s design. Sometimes the hat blocks are made from industrial felt that is stiffened and wired, so materials can be pulled over the mold to achieve precise shapes.

When building the Ascot hats, Nash had to work with negative space, since much of the hat will rest on the wigs the actors wear. She also had to consult the wig designers and sound designers, since the hats contain microphones and sound equipment.

The hats at Ascot are made of Sinamay, a malleable material from the Philippines that becomes stiff and strawlike when molded. It’s an ideal material: sturdy enough to weather time and survive frantic costume changes that occur between scenes.

The Sinamay is dyed to meet Bowden’s exact color requirements for the scene.

“I probably spent a day and a half dyeing swatches,” Nash said. “We use an industrial soup kettle to dye all our crafts, and the dye is mixed to achieve precise shades.”

Nash made hundreds of swatches of different shades of red, blue, yellow; Bowden, who designed all the costumes for the show, chose the colors she wanted.

“When you work this close and intensely on a project, you develop a vocabulary,” Nash said. “Part of working with new designers is learning their vocabulary, so when they say ‘dye this cream,’ you know what they mean by ‘cream.’ ”

After the blocks are built and materials are dyed, the mock-ups of elaborate shapes and styles are constructed. The design goes from two to three dimensions.

Nash notes that she doesn’t build every hat from scratch. Many are deconstructed from old hats, or made to look old. She often buys vintage ones and uses the linings to create new works. Materials come from everywhere, with Salasovich saying “No straw place mat is safe around us,” since the straw in place mats is perfect for constructing strip-straw hats.

“We’re constantly making old things look new, and new things look old here,” Salasovich said.

After the 3-D construction of the hat, it is embellished, with some of Nash’s most elaborate pieces involving metalwork, ostrich feathers, Swarovski crystals, and multiple fabrics.

Nash doesn’t sugarcoat the complicated, time-consuming process.

“Every hat is difficult in its own way,” she said. “Eliza’s hat will take more time because I had to create a block for it. But each production presents its own challenges. You’re never building a hat the same way twice.”

Nash was the child who couldn’t sit still, building and tinkering and breaking things constantly. Born in Nebraska, she moved to Baltimore at age 6 and considers herself a local. Her parents realized her flair for the arts, and sent her to Baltimore School for the Arts, a public magnet high school renowned for its intensive arts program. But there, she began studying violin, not design.

She credits her grandmother with having the good sense to teach her to sew one summer.

“I just fell in love with it,” Nash said. “By sophomore year of high school, I was cutting class to go to costume shop.”

Her teachers encouraged her to change her focus from music to design, and she gladly gave up the bow for the sewing needle. She then attended Boston University, where she majored in costume design and took intensive courses on millinery, a skill she’d dabbled in while in high school but came to love in college. She landed her first job out of college at Arena Stage and has been there ever since, except for the one-year sabbatical she took in 2006 to study millinery at Kensington and Chelsea College in London.

“They have so many more resources in Britain,” Nash said. “So I worked with some milliners who worked with the big fashion houses, and also theatrical milliners for ‘Harry Potter’ or BBC.”

There she learned new techniques, a necessity for milliners since traditional materials are becoming scarce. But modernizing millinery is not necessarily bad -- at the turn of the century, milliners used materials that contained mercury.

“There was some truth to the Mad Hatter,” Salasovich said.

As for learning the trade, Nash says it’s important to apprentice.

“It’s so important to find someone to study under,” Nash said. “I have some great books from the ’20s and ’30s, but the materials don’t exist anymore. Or the techniques are dated. One book recommended washing feathers in gasoline. We wouldn’t recommend that today.”

Salasovich says that’s one of the great joys of Arena Stage: the apprenticeship culture it fosters. Nash has taught many technicians and apprentices her tricks.

“In terms of the artistry going on here, there are a lot of people at the top of their game,” Salasovich said. “For me, I’m honored that I get to work with Deborah or the patternmakers who have been in the costume shop for over 20 and 30 years. It’s one of the cool things about Arena. There’s longevity, and we’re passing down techniques.”