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A CurtainUp Review

High Society

The economy is good. Extravagant spenders are spending extravagantly. Debutante balls are back. Big weddings, never really out, are bigger than ever. Compact-sized houses are giving way to mansion-scaled ones. Scandal journalists are keeping their computers buzzing to feeding the public's hunger for an inside look at the rich and/or famous.

It would seem that the time is indeed ripe to bring back a family that lives up to its name -- the Lords of Philadelphia (as in the 1938 play and 1940 movie The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry) and Newport (as in the 1956 movie High Society, musicalized to the sophisticated beat and lyrics of the one and only Cole Porter).

And so . . . welcome to the Lords of High Society, the Broadway Musical. They've moved to another glamorous neighborhood, Oyster Bay, but the story is basically the same. Tracy Lord is about to marry her straight arrow rags-to-riches fiance George Kittredge. Unless her kid sister Dinah, her also-to-the-manor born ex-husband Dexter and an unexpected third admirer from quite a different estate, (the press, a.k.a. the fourth estate), can dissuade her from doing so.

Does it really matter whether this frothy confection is any more or less relevant as it ever was, as widely asserted by Arthur Kopit who reworked the Barry play and movie musical into this "new" Broadway show? After all this High Society is a Broadway Musical and its real claim to musical revival worthiness is the music of the great Cole Porter which besides the movie tunes includes a number of additions from other Porter musicals. The program at the 4/23 Outer Critics press preview I attended omitted the one song by Marc Kudish and may not have reflected other last-minute changes so whether its eighteen or nineteen Porter songs, (some with additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead), High Society offers enough of a Porter feast to beg a question from a well-known lyric from another show "Who Could Ask For Anything More?"

Unless you're willing to judge a show by its best parts and not its sum total, the answer is likely to be a disappointed "Anyone for whom a good musical serves champagne that maintains its fizz throughout the performance!"

With the exception of some enjoyable high notes, the problems accounting for this are best summed up by a comment from Burns Mantle, erstwhile Daily News critic and one of the guiding lights and chief editors of the Otis Guernsey/Burns Mantle Theater Yearbooks (see link to review of most recent below) about Katherine Hepburn as the original Tracy Lord (in 1939) -- quot; a little overanxious to do her best."

In this current patchwork of Barry's play and cherry picked selections from the Porter's ouevre Burns Mantle's comment applies to Melissa Errico, the star, and practically everyone else behind and on the stage. Let me count the ways. . .

As noted in our sneak peek after attending a press event for this show, (see link at end), Ms. Errico seemed like a promising candidate to step into the slippers previously worn by Katherine Hepburn and Grace Kelly (the daughter of a self-made Philadelphia millionaire who after her make-believe wedding in the movie musical starred in one of this century's real fairy tale weddings to the monarch of Monaco). Looking more like Hepburn than the blonde Kelly, she seemed to combine the best of both, with the added asset of having a tingling soprano voice. As it turns out she looks even lovelier now that she's actually wearing the smashing outfits designed for her by the talented and productive Jane Greenwood. Her fine, clear voice, while somewhat tentative during the early scenes gets better and stronger as the show progresses. However, in her eagerness to be the bubbly, fun-loving Tracy, she's totally missed the layered vulnerability and imperiousness that defines the "ice goddess" who melts enough to step off her pedestal and join the human race before the inevitably happy ending.

As the ex-husband who carries a big torch, Daniel McDonald has a Cary Grant-like sartorial splendor but, no matter how anxiously he tries, he lacks the Grant panache needed to give us the book along with the cover. Except for the "True Love"duet with Tracy -- one of the most effectively staged scenes of the evening that owes no small measure to Howell Binkley's lighting (the same designer whose lighting was almost a character in its own right in Never the Sinner ).

Stephen Bogardus, with the help of hair designer Paul Huntley, bears a remarkable likeness to Frank Sinatra (especially in profile), the movie version's reporter who infiltrates the wedding to write an exposé about Seth Lord's (Tracy's father) extra-marital dalliance and ends up falling in love with Tracy. Unfortunately this anxiety to link him to Sinatra leads to unfair comparisons. In fairness to Bogardus, while he's no Sinatra, he's the best of the three suitors and his one big number with Tracy, "You're Sensational" is the only one with any real spark and sexual energy.

The exceptions to the "overanxious" syndrome among the performers are John McMartin, Randy Graff and young Anna Kendrick; also the Lord servants who are the show's ensemble/Greek chorus. McMartin isn't exactly a first-rate singer, and his incessant chasing after Liz Imbrie becomes tiresome, but his relaxed performance is a welcome relief from the general atmosphere of frenzied fun. Randy Graff, carries off the amusingly outrageous outfits in which Ms. Greenwood has dressed her with the same aplomb as her standout solo "He's The Right Guy." Anna Kendrick proves the old saw about never getting on stage with a kid or a dog. She steals the show with her very natural, charming -- but never obnoxious -- performance as kid sister Dinah. Thanks to her even the rather cutesy "I Love Paris" number is fun.

The director (whether Christopher Renshaw who is listed on the program, or Des McAnuff who was brought in during the show's troubled tryout period and is not) made a good choice in selecting the manor's servants for the leitmotif song and dance tableaus. However, true to the overanxious to please mood that pervades, they appear so often and so repetitiously that they too tend to become tiresome. On the other side of this coin we have the choreographer (again we have one on the record--Lar Lubovitch-- and one off --Wayne Cilento) who should have been a lot more anxious to provide sufficient dance routines to warrant choreography credit for anyone at all.

In his "overanxiety" to restore the father-daughter rapprochement to the love story, Arthur Kopit has expanded the roles of mom and dad Lord but without making these parts meaningful enough to give either Lisa Banes or Daniel Gerroll anything into which to sink their acting teeth. Having only recently seen Mr. Gerroll give a fine performance in Scotland Road it's clear he deserves better than this.

Basically, there's nothing wrong with the patchwork method of combining songs from several musicals into one. It has worked well for other musicals such as Crazy For You, (a patchwork of Gerhwin tunes), but the re-assignment and re-arrangement of numbers to fit the current story line has made the impossible possible: The Porter songs lacks the overall pizazz one expects of them. A prime example is Daniel McDonald's bluesey version of "It Was Just One Of Those Things." While one of his better numbers it stops the show but in the wrong way; it is awkward, out of synch and thus disruptive to the flow of the story and action.

For all these quibbles, High Society isn't a real low in musical entertainment. Loy Arcenas' empty portrait frames are an amusingly sly visual commentary on the lives of the society crowd the Lords represent. The mock pull-apart mansions are fun as is the pop-up Xavier Cugat style orchestra in the one big production number and the already mentioned Greenwood costumes. And the cast is attractive and succeeds just often enough in its "over-anxiousness to please" to make the two hours pass without yawns.

The Best Plays of 1996-97
Sneak Peek of High Society
Never the Sinner
Scotland Road

Book: Arthur Kopit, Adapted from the play The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry and the musical film version
Music: Cole Porter withadditional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead.
Directed by Christopher Renshaw.
With Melissa Errico, Daniel McDonald, Randy Graff, Stephen Bogardus and John McMartin
Sets: Loy Arcenas
Costumes: Jane Greenwood
Lighting: Howell Binkley
Sound: Tony Meola
Musical direction: Paul Gemignani
Orchestrations:William David St. James, 246 W. 44th St. (239-6200)
Performances from 3/31/98; opens 4/ 27/98
Seen 4/23 and reviewed by Elyse Sommer
Closing Aug. 30, after 20 previews and 144 regular performances.

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©Copyright 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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