After playing so many demure ingenues, Rena Wilson is enjoying playing fiery Cockney Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady."
She puts up a fight if she doesn't get what she wants.
"The feelings are so right on the sleeve," she said at Modesto High School during a break from rehearsals for the upcoming Modesto Performing Arts production. "You know exactly what this character is thinking and feeling."
Written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, "My Fair Lady" centers on Eliza's transformation from an uncouth Cockney into a cultured lady. Professor Henry Higgins picks her up on the street and makes a bet with a friend that he can make her presentable in society.
The show, which won the 1957 Tony Award for best musical, features the hit songs "Get Me to the Church on Time," "On the Street Where You Live," "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "The Rain in Spain."
"'My Fair Lady' is one of the very few musicals where practically every song is well known or a hit," director Paul Tischer said.
The 1964 movie version, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, won numerous Oscars, including best picture.
Tischer said he picked the musical because he hasn't staged it in 22 years and because he had the right cast for it. The show features a whopping 50 people of all ages and an orchestra.
The biggest challenge of getting the show ready has been to teach the actors how to waltz, Tischer said. The teens in the cast had a particularly hard time learning the steps.
"If you want to see a waltz as a hip-hop dance, that's what we were seeing the first week," he joked.
Tischer is excited to cast Wilson, whom he has admired since he saw her play Lily in Townsend Opera Players' 2006 staging of "The Secret Garden."
"I like her professionalism, acting ability, singing ability and dancing ability," Tischer said. "I thought she looked the part."
Wilson, who is based in Oakland, is finishing up a job teaching 9- to 15-year-olds at a theater camp in Castro Valley. Aside from juggling her schedule, the biggest challenge of playing Eliza is pulling off her distinctive Cockney accent. Fortunately, she can practice with recordings she received a few years ago from a dialect coach at Diablo Light Opera.
She has a great rapport with Merced College music instructor Curtis Nelson, who stars as Higgins. The two acted together in "The Secret Garden" and are good at sparring verbally.
"It's Higgins and Eliza, in a boxing match of will and determination," Nelson said.
In that match, it's Eliza that gets all the sympathy. Higgins is cold and calculating and sees her more as a project than a person.
"I'm thankful Paul says the character is nothing like me," he said.
Over the course of the show, though, Higgins softens up and begins to warm to Eliza. While the word "love" is never used between them, there is definitely a romantic attraction there, Nelson said.
"He's found his equal of spirit — maybe not his equal of intellect, but equal of spirit," Nelson said.