From Mulan to Eliza Doolittle. Manna Nichols on her new starring role

- This is a the second in our 2 part look at the new production of Lerner and Loewe’s masterpiece musical My Fair Lady about to open at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. –

The last time audiences in Washington saw Manna Nichols, she was performing as a proud Chinese girl disguising herself as a soldier in Disney’s Mulan at Imagination Stage. Celia Wren in The Washington Post declared Nichols “appealing and dulcet-voiced.”

Manna Nichols

The Oklahoma native now returns to Washington, D.C. to use her dulcet tones to bring to Eliza Doolittle to life in the Arena Stage production of  My Fair Lady.

Director Molly Smith thought of casting persons of color for the Doolittles, Eliza and Alfred, her father. After researching London in the time Edwardian Era and discovering the large pockets of Asian immigrants, the director concentrated on casting Asian-American actors for the roles.

“Anytime casting is done in a different way, it confronts the audience. We want the theatre to grab us and make us question our preconceptions,” said Smith.

James Saito, last seen at Arena sixteen years ago, plays the ne’er-do-well Alfred Doolittle, who sings the rousing “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Smith told us, “Manna is lovely, smart as a whip, and has a voice that is God-sent. She is really able to create her character through the voice.”

Nichols also has praise for her director, known for her innovative productions of musicals such as South Pacific and Oklahoma!.

“Being my first time working with Molly Smith has been 100 percent inspiring, the way she teaches the actors to think about their characters. I totally trust her, as a director.” “She has a beautiful vision for the work, and surrounds herself with a great team. Just watching how the whole production has developed has been an education.”

Arena’s “fair lady” is also appreciative of working with her leading men.

Manna Nichols as Eliza Doolittle and Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Canada’s Benedict Campbell brings 35 years of experience to the Fichlander as Professor Henry Higgins. “Benedict Campbell, who comes from the Shaw Festival, works in this world so easily. I have learned so much just by observing him and working with him.”

Nichols said Campbell’s rapport with local theatre favorite Thomas Adrian Simpson, as Col. Pickering, is wonderful to observe. “We just watch and take notes.”

As Eliza, Nichols shares scenes with the love-struck Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Her Freddy is Nicholas Rodriguez, a familiar face and voice to Arena Stage patrons.

Rodriguez won the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for outstanding leading actor in a musical for Curly in Molly Smith’s production of Oklahoma! He also received praise for playing the romantic Florentine suitor of an American tourist in “The Light in the Piazza,” another Smith production.

“He is wonderful. I completely understand why Nick is the angel of Arena Stage,” said Nichols. “He is so gracious. We have spent a lot of time waltzing together, taking the choreography and making our own.”

Coming to Eliza Doolittle was a dream come true for the graduate of Western Michigan University, who also has Off-Broadway credits and often performs as a member of the U.S.O.’s Liberty Bells.

“Eliza is a role I always wanted to play, I have dreamed about it for years,” said Nichols.

“Lerner and Loewe knew how to write some good songs – they wrote such beautiful music. One of my favorite things about this show is they wrote all kinds of songs for Eliza, from ‘Loverly’ to ‘Just You Wait.’ What completely contrasting pieces she gets to sing.”

Her Arena Stage gig is not her first time singing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” in fact.

“Back at Memorial Park Middle School, in the eighth grade, I sang the song to audition for the musical Mame. I was very shy, and I had auditioned other shows but had not been cast. My friends told me I would be perfect for the nanny, Agnes Gooch.”

“I thought that ‘Loverly’ fit my voice, so I went in with that song and I got the role! So even in eighth grade, that song touched me.”

As she prepared to take on Eliza, Nichols said the work began before she arrived in Washington, D.C. “They said to show up ready to work. When I was cast, I asked if I could read script and work on the music. I wanted to make sure I did my own homework, so I read through Pygmalion. I wanted to bring my ideas to the table when they asked for them.”

Getting to know her character has been a joy, she said. “She has so many layers, like the layers of an onion. Eliza wears her heart on her sleeve and and even her face at the beginning – not always in socially appropriate ways,” Nichols chuckled.

“It’s beautiful to go through her transition throughout the show, moving into proper society.”

Nichols said My Fair Lady is really a story of transformation and she loves seeing Eliza’s effect on Professor Higgins. “They both go through a transformation.”

Nichols is appreciative that Molly Smith and Arena Stage took the chance to cast her in what has traditionally been role taken by Caucasian actresses. Even though her credits include Mulan, the tragic Kim in  Miss Saigon and the concubine Tuptim in The King and I, Nichols has also gotten to play Laurie in Oklahoma! and Cinderella in Into the Woods.

My Fair Lady
Closes January 6, 2013
Arena Stage at the Mead Center
for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
Tickets: $45 – $94
Some performances are sold out.
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets

“It’s wonderful being an Asian actress and I am extremely appreciative of the Asian roles but I feel like I am appropriate for those other roles as well, like Eliza.”

“After all, I have to represent the other half of my family,” Nichols added. Her mother is Chinese, while her father is part Native American. Her supportive parents were cautious at first when she decided switching paths from her major – she earned a degree in music education – to concentrate on performing.

“They are 100 percent on board and supportive, though they were originally concerned. They are practical Midwesterners. For them, it was a farfetched idea for me to want to be on Broadway – it was such a rare interest. No one wants their children to starve.”

As her career has picked up, Nichols said her mom and dad continue to share in her successes.

“In the last couple of years, God has been good to me, letting me do something I love to do. I think they are really overjoyed that I can live out my dreams.”

Manna Nichols will continue performing one of her dream roles, Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater through January 6, 2013.

More:

Molly Smith talks with us about directing My Fair Lady plus little known facts about the musical.

 

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