The supporting cast shines in High Society
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Arthur Kopit. Additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Directed by Bill Millerd. An Arts Club production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, May 16. Continues until June 24
You want a musical like High Society to be consistently stylish. But, in this production at least, it’s lumpy.
In a way, that’s not surprising, given the musical’s provenance. Based on the play The Philadelphia Story, which became the iconic 1940 movie, and on the 1956 movie musical by Cole Porter, High Society was further adapted for a new stage musical in 1998. That version, which is what we’re seeing here, includes a bunch of new tunes culled from Cole Porter’s songbook. So it’s a compilation piece, kind of like Mamma Mia! or Rock of Ages, in which popular tunes are forced into unnatural service. In High Society, “She’s Got That Thing” celebrates the sexuality of a character who never appears.
The problems go deeper than that, though. Like The Philadelphia Story, High Society rides on the quirky charm of its characters and tone. It’s 1938, and spoiled socialite Tracy Lord is planning a summer wedding to industrialist George Kittredge, whose fatal flaw is his lack of wit. The day before the nuptials, Tracy’s dapper ex-husband Dexter Haven shows up. And the romantic possibilities get even more tangled when the sensitive Mike Connor, a tabloid reporter there to cover the wedding, falls for Tracy. Directed by George Cukor and starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart, the movie version of The Philadelphia Story is seamlessly light and melancholy, and the levels of charisma are through the roof.
But, for the Arts Club, director Bill Millerd has miscast key roles, and he allows his performers to pull in multiple stylistic directions.
One of the country’s best actors, Jennifer Lines doesn’t sing well enough to carry the lead in a musical. On opening night, her tone was particularly unpleasant and uncertain in her first number, “Ridin’ High”. And in Act 1, her flamboyance felt forced. Lines improved mightily in Act 2, in which the opportunities for serious characterization deepen.
It’s still hard to invest in Tracy’s love life, though. That’s partly because Daniel Arnold (Mike, the reporter) also delivers a heavy-handed portrait and shaky singing. Steve Maddock (George, Tracy’s betrothed) sings like an angel but overacts like an amateur. Fortunately, Todd Talbot, who takes the role of Dexter, Tracy’s ex, is a smoothly charming song-and-dance man.
The real stars of this production, though, emerge from the supporting cast. Norman Browning deserves keys to the city for his work as Tracy’s drunken Uncle Willie. Browning is in such a groove—he’s so confident and he’s having such a good time—that every syllable that comes out of his mouth is fresh and surprising. Bridget Esler (Tracy’s little sister Dinah) has the voice, timing, and presence that could make her a star. And Lauren Bowler is such a pro that every detail of her characterization of tabloid photographer Liz Imbrie is nuanced. Liz’s solo, “He’s a Right Guy”, is among the most touching passages in the evening.
Phillip Clarkson’s costumes—including a fabulous black-and-gold Indian number for the mother of the bride—are unerringly gorgeous.
The overall production comes and goes.