It reads more like a scene from a 50’s showbiz movie. It’s the closing weekend. The Saturday night performance is nearly sold out. The star is taken ill. Her understudy is ill.
A young member of the ensemble is thrust into the leading role. The audience holds its breath. The cast rallies round. She dances and sings as though the role were created for her. The show ends in a standing ovation.
If you were in the audience Saturday night to see My Fair Lady at Arena Stage, you learned from Artistic Director Molly Smith that a flu had decimated the cast. Understudies were stepping into the roles of Alfred Doolittle, Jamie and Mrs. Pearce/Queen of Transylvania. But, both Manna Nichols and her understudy Erin Driscoll being ill, there was no coverage for the role of Eliza Doolitle.
Local actress Hannah Willman, a member of the ensemble, was given two hours of rehearsal, took to the stage, book in hand, and turned in what will hopefully be a career-changing performance.
Here’s how Steven Levingston, reporting for the Washington Post, described it: “As the show began, the cast seemed to stamp a little harder than usual and twirl a little faster, determined to carry the brave new lead on their shoulders.
“But Willman needed no hoisting — she leapt into the role with confidence and stunning vocal precision. After she led the ensemble in ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’ the house burst into rousing applause, and again the response was resounding when she nailed ‘I Could Have Danced All Night.’”
Originally from Texas, according to her website, Willman performed in her first musical at the age of 5. She moved to the DC area in 2005, and has since been seen most often at Signature Theatre (Sycamore Trees, Sweeney Todd, Show Boat, Les Misérables and Anyone Can Whistle.)
Erin Driscoll, the official understudy for the role, performed the closing show on Sunday night.