Just you wait, Henry Higgins: Olney Theatre stages modern ‘My Fair Lady’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'My Fair Lady' at Olney Theatre (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It was perhaps the juiciest stage vs. screen battle of all time: Julie Andrews starring as Eliza Doolittle on Broadway in 1956 and Warner Bros. replacing her with Audrey Hepburn for the 1964 film, only for Andrews to beat Hepburn for the Best Actress Oscar.

Now, it’s Brittany Campbell’s turn in Olney Theatre Center’s “My Fair Lady” (June 24-Aug. 6), which provides a modern-day take on one of the most beloved classics of musical theater.

“My mom showed it to me — she’s a huge Audrey Hepburn fan — when I was 6,” Campbell told WTOP, as co-star Danny Bernardy added, “Same. I saw a production in San Diego.”

Based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and adapted by Alan Jay Lerner (book/lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music), the story follows London phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Bernardy), who bets he can turn flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Campbell) into a high-society gal.

“It’s a very surprising ‘My Fair Lady,'” Campbell said. “It’s a new take, a contemporary take. It’s, in some ways, darker, a little more stripped down. It’s cool. We bring out the sexier side.”

This hipper, sexier version boasts a younger, more diverse cast than past productions.

“He thinks she’s pretty cute in our version,” Bernardy said. “Rex Harrison was in his 50s when he did it and I’m in my 30s. It’s also set 10 years later, so that provided different costuming possibilities and also different attitudes from ladies who could vote at that point in history.”

Director Alan Souza uses the costume changes to reflect Eliza’s evolving state of mind.

“The costume pieces are interpreted through where Eliza’s mentality is from her perspective,” Campbell said. “So it goes from this drab color palette to this vivacious, more colorful palette. Also, the costumes get wacky at a certain point when the world starts to open up for her.”

No matter how wacky, there are a few traditional holdovers, like the phonetics phonograph.

“They had records at that point, but we still use cylinders,” Bernardy said with a laugh.

Unchanged are your favorite tunes: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Just You Wait,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “Show Me,” “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

“I love to do ‘Accustomed to Her Face,'” Bernardy said. “Our brilliant director pointed out just how genius it is. I like to take a hack at it every night. And I love ‘Danced All Night.’ It’s just what you need in that moment. … I don’t want to give it away, but imagine a bed in the stars.”

Campbell agrees that it’s her favorite song to perform.

“My favorite song to sing is ‘Danced All Night,'” Campbell said. “It’s just a completely free moment where she gets to be light and fun. ‘Spread my wings, do a thousand things!’ It’s just really fun and really beautiful. I mean, I’ve never got to see it, but hearsay is that it’s beautiful.”

What’s her favorite number to watch her co-stars perform?

“‘Get Me to the Church,'” Campbell said. “There’s just so few moments where we get to really see the ensemble. They’re such a great ensemble, so it’s just so much fun, so much energy.”

Performing the jovial number is Chris Genebach as Eliza’s dad Alfred P. Doolittle.

“Every day, I’m like, ‘What’s it gonna be?’ because he brings something fresh every single time,” Bernardy said. “Both Brittany and I are from New York, but everybody else is D.C. area.”

That includes Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Higgins, Todd Scofield as Colonel Pickering and Benjamin Lurye as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who performs the beautiful “On the Street Where You Live.”

“He’s a wonderful singer of glorious proportions,” Campbell said.

“The song’s a showstopper,” Bernardy added.

Yes, there’s a good chance you’ll be tapping your foot long after you leave the theater.

“It’s a totally fresh, new take,” Campbell said. “It’s a ‘My Fair Lady’ you’ve never seen before.”

Click here for more info. Listen to our full chat with Brittany Campbell and Danny Bernardy below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the 'My Fair Lady' cast (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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