Nichols and Campbell: A Shared Triumph as Eliza and Henry in ‘My Fair Lady’
Watching Manna Nichols, her black hair in a pony tail, feet tucked under, purple top and blue jeans, and Bene- dict Campbell, wearing a dark jacket, in a meet- ing room downstairs at Arena Stage, you get the sense they’ve developed a bond, an easy way about them. You are also reminded of the roles they’re playing in “My Fair Lady.”
She is Eliza Doolittle. He is Henry Higgins, just you wait. They’re the grand protagonists, the adversaries, the student-teacher, and, wonders of wonders, the astounding-in-the-end couple who end up together in Molly Smith’s production of the classic Lerner and Loewe musical by way of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”
Like Eliza and Henry, the two are certainly sur- face opposites. Campbell, although he seems to have few pretensions, given his background, is considered one of the finest actors in Canada. He comes from theater royalty. His father, the late Douglas Campbell, was a revered classical actor in England, before he came across the pond and became a founding member of both the Stratford Festival and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. His mother was the actress Ann Casson, whose mother was the legendary actress Dame Sybil Thorndike.
You know, Shaw wrote ‘Saint Joan’ specifi- cally for my grandmother,” Campbell said. This doesn’t appear to be a case of high-brow name dropping, but rather as a link in his chain to Shaw. “I’ve done a lot of his plays, certainly,” he said. This began a discussion of “Major Barbara,” which “I just did it not so long ago. I rather like Undershaft (the munition tycoon anti-hero of the play).
This sort of background—stated modestly but firmly—ought to be the kind of resume that might intimidate someone like Nichols, who is in her twenties and is a young, rising performer, whose main experience is in musicals. “That didn’t happen,” she said. “It came about as more of mutual respect and collaboration. Not that I haven’t learned a lot from him. He is such a fine actor and a generous one, too.”
Nichols was a new addition to the production which Molly Smith had staged at the Shaw Fes- tival in Canada, where Campbell is a company member. “Certainly, you have to adjust with someone new, but it was not that difficult,” Nich- ols said. “It’s just something you have to do.”
Both of them are cognizant that some theater- goers will inevitably—memory being what it is—make comparisons to the film version of “My Fair Lady,” in which Rex Harrison, sing- talking or talking-singing his way through the music made an indelible impression as did Hep- burn. “Sure, people are going to think about it,” Nichols said. “I’ve seen it a lot. But they dubbed Hepburn so that wasn’t that much of a problem.” Campbell’s allows that “I don’t even like Har- rison in the part. So, I wasn’t worried about that.”
Both Campbell and Nichols have made their own distinct impressions in their parts, separately and in tandem.
“The first time I heard ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’ or ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ I imagined myself singing them,” Nichols said. “They’re such beautiful, beautiful songs.” Music and singing are her performing fortes. Oklahoma- born, she’s part Chinese, part Native American and part white, and 100-percent beautiful. She has made her mark in musicals. “Usually, I’m cast in Asian parts,” she said. “But not always. And it’s funny, this relationship between Eliza and Henry. It’s something more than just roman- tic. It’s about growth and learning. She wants to be his equal, while he’s learned to be more of a human being.”
Nichols made a big mark in an Imagination Stage musical production of Disney’s “Mulan.” She also made an impression in “The King and I” and “Miss Saigon” in a career that has been musicals that began with her playing Me in “The Owl and the Tree and Me” at the Cimarron Cir- cuit Opera Company.
In this production, it seems that it’s a shared triumph—a trick that Henry Higgins has to learn but that both Nichols and Campbell know al- ready. They start to talk with each other about a bit of business, a way of emphasis, or mov- ing in a scene, making it different, making it better, together.