For Alan Souza, it’s a question of why.
“I’m of the belief that every story is a contemporary story if we’re telling it,” said Souza, the director of “My Fair Lady” at Olney Theatre Center (OTC). “It has to be relevant to the audience. If a story is worth repeating—and this musical is over 60 years old, the play it’s based on is over a hundred years old and the myth of Pygmalion goes back thousands of years, so it’s a story that’s been told so many times—my goal as a director is to figure out why.
“Why now?” he added. “Why here?”
It was a question OTC’s Artistic Director Jason Loewith asked the New York-based director who most recently made a splash directing “Camelot” at Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook. Souza’s answer: “I think how we treat one another is based on how we talk, our socioeconomic status, the color of our skin, our gender. It’s a relevant story.”
Souza sought to tweak the musical (without changing its book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe), which was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.” He moved its timeline up to 1921— “the beginning of the modern age,” he said, “when women had suffrage.
“All of a sudden, we’re in a moment when women, theoretically, have rights. And that permeates down to the lower classes: they know about it, even though they don’t have the status or the position or the education or the money, they have rights under the law.”
And into these about-to-get-roaring twenties, Souza lays his scene: dancing Cockneys who know their rights, upper-crust toffs who welcome a former flower-seller into their fold and—most importantly—a “woke” Eliza Doolittle facing off toe-to-toe with a hot young Henry Higgins.
“This Eliza Doolittle, in a moment of empowerment for women, meets this fella,” Souza said. “I believe it’s a great throbbing romance; I’ve said that from the beginning, as did Shaw.”
Alan J. Lerner had a different opinion—Souza blames the 1950s—but for the director, there’s nothing ambiguous about Liza and Henry. “The temperament of her, the attitude of her, clashing with the ego and persona of Henry Higgins, makes a mirror for us that we haven’t seen before in the context of ‘My Fair Lady,’ and all its familiar songs,” the director said. “Suddenly, we see them—and ourselves—in a new way.”
Henry Higgins, Hound Dog
So, it makes sense that Danny Barnardy is not your grandmother’s Henry Higgins. “Or your mom’s,” agreed the affable actor. “People associate the wonderful Rex Harrison with Higgins—he’s the standard bearer; the part was written for him.”
But Barnardy, who is 34 and came on board after a series of serendipitous near-misses, said it was Souza’s vision of a young, virile Henry Higgins—a bit of a “playboy/womanizer” as opposed to a “confirmed bachelor”—that convinced him he could make his mark.
“There was something about this one,” said Barnardy, who is too modest to admit to being a triple threat. Interested in theater from childhood, he went from a public high school for the arts in his native San Diego to a theater degree at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh to a career as a New York-based actor that brought him to the Kennedy Center for a six-month stint in “Shear Madness” (where he first met “My Fair Lady” castmate Valerie Leonard). “I was just so drawn to it; the idea was so cool.”
The idea, in a nutshell, was that rather than the aloof, ambivalent Professor Higgins immortalized by Harrison, OTC would expose a Higgins whose snobbish indifference to Eliza—the “guttersnipe” Cockney flower seller whose life he upends to prove a point and win a bet—might just be rooted in a combination platter of lust and bro-ish misogyny.
“He could be super-involved with women in a chauvinistic way; the text totally supports that,” mused Barnardy. “Or maybe, there’s another reason the guy’s a jerk: maybe he was burned once. It’s all there for the mining.”
And while what he mines about the character of Henry Higgins is done in secret, part of the actor’s due diligence, what Barnardy expresses on the stage is fun and energetic and poignant and confused. It’s a thrill, he admitted. Barnardy the person says he’s “by nature a nice guy;” while Barnardy the actor roots his character in a crisis of confidence that explains and excuses his bluster.
“It would be a trap to judge our dear Henry Higgins,” he said. “I have to be on his side 100 percent. But by setting this 10 years later than the original, Alan is ‘going there’ in a contemporary sort of fashion.
“‘What happens when men feel like they’re losing their power?’ he added.
“’How much do you push back?’”
Brittany Campbell had some problems with Eliza Doolittle.
It was the way the character was depicted, the 27-year-old singer and actress explained, noting that when she agreed to audition for “My Fair Lady,” she thought the show was too traditional, the character too old-fashioned, and she didn’t much agree with any of it.
“So, I just said, ‘whatever’—it was very low stakes for me,” she remembered. “I decided I’d just go in there and do whatever I thought Eliza should be. But it turned out the director was Alan Souza, who is a wild man. We kind of connected in that regard—and the rest is history!”
Campbell’s own history is interesting. As a 7-year-old at St. Jerome’s parochial school in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, a teacher recognized her talent and had her enter an opera contest, where she placed in a field of teenagers and quickly got professional representation. She attended the High School Performing Arts in New York, then Carnegie Mellon (seven years after Barnardy) and she’s making her OTC debut to great acclaim—mostly because of the chances she takes with the role.
“I loved Audrey Hepburn, but Eliza Doolittle was such a victim,” Campbell pointed out. “I didn’t understand the things she did, and I disagreed with this brutish Henry Higgins and the victimized Eliza. That’s not the kind of woman I want to be.”
Fortunately, she noted, Souza was on the same page. There’s a rising tide that lifts the entire production into modernity, giving life and worth to the working class, “have-not” Cockneys (led by the sublimely hilarious Chris Genebach as Alfred P. Doolittle) and showing the humor and humanity of the upper classes as they gambol around Ascot looking deliciously ridiculous (and, in the case of Ben Lurye as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, stealing the show with an extraordinary rendition of “On the Street Where You Live”). The entire endeavor feels fresh and new, and much of that stems from Eliza.
“The only way Eliza Doolittle makes sense to me is: she has to be smart, she has to be ambitious, she has to be different,” Campbell opined. “If Henry Higgins is coming into Covent Garden and choosing this one person to take on, it means she has this spark about her. She’s not like the rest.”
Campbell, who honed her Cockney accent chatting with her London-based Jamaican relatives, seizes upon the drive she sees in Eliza. “I want to get out of here, and here’s my opportunity,” she said. “I’m gonna go to his house and see about it.”
And when she gets there, she finds “this incredibly boyish and crazy Higgins. “Danny makes me stronger,” she added. “He’s so much fun.”
The fun spills over into her portrayal of Eliza. Reinvented as a strong modern woman for this updated and reimagined production, she’s suddenly a pleasure to play.
“She’s the best girl ever,” Campbell said. “She’s Wonder Woman.”
“My Fair Lady” is at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney through July 23. Shows start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, July 12. An audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired is set for 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 5 and a sign-interpreted performance for 8 p.m. Thursday, July 13. Tickets start at $45, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.