It’s early morning at the home of Professor Henry Higgins, and, by George, Eliza Doolittle has finally got it: She has pronounced her “rain in Spain” exercise with the proper upper-crust accent. The incredulous Higgins sidles up to his pupil, asking her to repeat her feat. His face, voice and posture register astonishment and incipient self-congratulation, but something else, as well: For Higgins, it seems, Eliza’s improved diction is a bit of a turn-on.
In the lean, generally fetching, mildly nontraditional “My Fair Lady” now at Olney Theatre Center, the power struggle between Higgins and Eliza occasionally displays a startling erotic edge. That’s the case in part because director Alan Souza has given us a Higgins with the looks, and often the presence, of a matinee idol. Higgins may claim to be a “confirmed old bachelor,” but as portrayed by Danny Bernardy, he’s certainly not very old. And in moments like the lead-up to the musical number “The Rain in Spain,” you have to wonder whether this world-renowned phonetics expert isn’t a philanderer waiting to happen.
Fear not: Higgins is still a domineering, egotistical male chauvinist with lacerating verbal flair and the willingness to trample over other people’s feelings. So we still get the full intensity of the showdown immortalized in “My Fair Lady,” by book writer/lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe. This production benefits from the dynamism and singing prowess of Brittany Campbell as Eliza, the Covent Garden flower seller who learns elite pronunciation under Higgins’s tutelage.
The production’s musical high point is “On the Street Where You Live,” sung in soaring tones by Benjamin Lurye’s amusingly nerdy Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Another cast standout is Valerie Leonard, who is drolly cool and mordant as Mrs. Higgins and who doubles as the punctilious housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. And Chris Genebach packs personality and comedy into the role of Eliza’s genially dissolute father, Alfred P. Doolittle.
The philosophical Alfred P. is at the center of the production’s liveliest numbers, featuring gamboling Cockneys. “Get Me to the Church on Time” is rowdy fun. But during other musical scenes, there’s an effortful quality to the stage business and prop-wielding. (Grady McLeod Bowman is the choreographer, and Christopher Youstra, music director.)
Scenic designer James Fouchard and costumer Pei Lee give the production an attractive spare, stylized look, with a color palette shifting from muted to loud colors, and then to soignée pastels, to underscore Eliza’s evolving perspective on society and class.
Program notes proclaim that Souza has set the story in 1921, a few years after the passage of a law that enabled some British women to vote. (George Bernard Shaw wrote “Pygmalion,” the musical’s source play, in 1912-1913.) The directorial decision was apparently aimed at drawing thematic resonance from a period that saw women enjoying broadening horizons in life and work. But there are few obvious signs of the 1920s in the production, other than certain pointed costume choices — and a very pointed gesture — near the end.
In any case, postdating the story seems almost redundant, given Eliza’s resolve, iconoclasm, daring and ultimate self-reliance. “I shall not feel alone without you / I can stand on my own without you,” she sings to a powerful man. Isn’t she a first-wave feminist in all but name?
My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music, Frederick Loewe; adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s movie “Pygmalion.” Directed by Alan Souza; lighting design, Max Doolittle; sound, Matt Rowe; wig design, Alexandra Pohanka. With Ian Anthony Coleman, Warren Freeman, Christina Kidd, Alex Kidder, Ashleigh King, Julia Klavans, Jimmy Mavrikes, Christopher Mueller and Todd Scofield. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through July 23 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Tickets: $38-$80. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.