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The Theatreguide.London Review

High Society
Old Vic Theatre  Spring-Summer 2015

This may not be a great musical. But, as its heroine might say, it's an awfully awfully good one.

Philip Barry's 1939 play and 1940 film The Philadelphia Story was turned into a film musical in 1956 by plugging in a few Cole Porter songs. 

For this 1998 Broadway stage version (There have been at least two others) adapter Arthur Kopit dipped into the Cole Porter catalogue to supplement the film's thin score with such classics as Ridin' High, Just One Of Those Things and It's All Right With Me, some with lily-gilding new lyrics by Susan Birkenhead.

(Though, with one of the American theatre's greatest songbooks to plunder, I wonder if he really had to dip as low as She's Got That Thing and I Worship You.) 

Like Barry's play, High Society centres on heiress Tracy Lord, who is visited on the eve of her second marriage by her first husband. 

Need I say more? Tracy and ex C. K. Dexter Haven (one of the theatre's great character names) are obvious soulmates while hubby-to-be George is a stick. But Tracy is a bit of an ice queen, and Dex can only hope she'll loosen up and learn some charity toward the failings of others while he's busy sabotaging the wedding. 

Factor in a snooping reporter and the lady photographer who loves him, a philandering father, a drunken uncle and a bratty little sister, and you have the kind of screwball comedy that was the 1930s equivalent of modern rom-com date movies, only much more witty and stylish. And with Cole Porter songs. 

Maria Friedman's production is sprightly and smooth-flowing. A brilliant singing actress herself, Friedman leads her cast to make the most of the best songs (than which there are few better) and to salvage what they can from the weaker ones. 

Friedman masters the challenges of staging a musical in the round, largely by establishing that the shortest distance between any two points onstage is a loop around the circumference. 

She is aided in both the smooth flow of events and the visual delight that is an essential part of any musical by Tom Pye's inventive set design that has furniture including two working grand pianos rising from and sinking back into the stage floor, and there is a particularly lovely bit of theatre magic involving a model boat. 

Nathan M. Wright's choreography involves a lot of whirling waiters and housemaids, the one biggest number, Let's Misbehave, filling the stage with colour and movement while also incorporating some key plot and characterising points. 

Kate Fleetwood is always magnetic as Tracy, though her performance may have a bit too much of the musical comedy star's wooing of the audience to convince us of the character's iciness. 

To be fair, it's difficult for a character who enters singing Ridin' High to appear passionless, and Fleetwood does make it clear that there is somebody worth Dex's love and efforts in there. 

Rupert Young begins a little too boyishly as Dex, but he quickly finds the depth and sincerity that leaven the character's flippancy without reducing the performer's charm. 

Singer-songwriter Joe Stilgoe has been shoehorned into the show as an irrelevant but attractive party performer, perhaps as a homage to Louis Armstrong's similarly gratuitous but welcome insertion in the film, and Stilgoe's ad-libbed prelude helps put the audience in a party mood. 

But the real wellspring of charm and personality in this production is Jamie Parker as the reporter who falls briefly under Tracy's spell and helps in her defrosting. 

The role is written as part hard-boiled cynic, part romantic, part political bolshie, part innocent abroad and largely just one of nature's true gentlemen; and Parker absorbs them into one believable and attractive character invested with his own warmth as a performer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - High Society  - Old Vic Theatre 2015    

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