It's no secret that Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith is fascinated by iconic, "gold-standard" American musicals. And now D.C. theatergoers will benefit from that fascination in Smith's highly polished, intelligent production of "My Fair Lady," with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe.

The musical version of George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion," "My Fair Lady" takes place in London, 1912, telling the tale of a Cockney flower-seller, Eliza Doolittle (Manna Nichols). Eliza's life changes radically when she meets phonetician Henry Higgins (Benedict Campbell), who wagers that he can make Eliza acceptable to high society just by changing her voice and appearance.

Lerner's book asks many questions about class and how it defines us, about looks, manners and dress. Director Smith emphasizes those central issues, while examining Eliza's strength and Higgins' self-awareness. But she does so subtly, through the beauty and humor of the Lerner/Lowe music, so that the intellectual interests of the work never impede its surface appeal. With excellent musical direction from Paul Sportelli, the overall impression of the score is of a string of extraordinarily clever, insightful, touching songs, each of which speeds the story along.

Smith has two great assets in this "Fair Lady." The first is Nichols, whose bright soprano outlines clear, heartfelt emotions with each song: yearning in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," anger in "Just You Wait," joy in "I Could Have Danced All Night," and impatience in "Show Me." Nichols is enchanting in every emotional guise.

'My Fair Lady'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
When: Through Jan. 6
Info: $45 to $94; 202-488-3300;

The second asset is Campbell, who plays Higgins not as the eminently rigid teacher who can't admit to himself that he has feelings for Eliza. Instead, Campbell's Higgins is a far more interesting man, who alters greatly and is capable of admitting it.

Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who falls instantly in love with Eliza, is played by Nicholas Rodriguez, who turns a tiny part into a major one through his impassioned singing of "On The Street Where You Live." Catherine Flye is delightful as Henry's unflappable mother. Sherri Edelen plays Higgins' housekeeper with a charming comic flourish.

"My Fair Lady" has always been a favorite tale of transformation. This one will be remembered as a "Fair Lady" that is equally concerned with personal strength and self-knowledge.