The history of the stage version of High Society is as circuitous as the musical's plot. In 1939, Philip Barry's play of upper-crust romance, The Philadelphia Story, opened on Broadway and starred Katharine Hepburn in the leading role of Tracy Lord. It was quickly turned into a film the following year, with Hepburn reprising her role opposite Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart (who took home an Oscar for his part). Sixteen years later, in 1956, Cole Porter added a handful of songs to a musical film version of The Philadelphia Story called High Society, which featured Louis Armstrong and his band and starred Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. Then in 1998, after a brief San Francisco tryout, the story made its way back to Broadway, Cole Porter music intact.
Fans of Porter as well as of the films will be pleased to know that High Society is finally making its Philadelphia premiere at the Walnut Street Theatre in a delightful production directed by Frank Anzalone, with terrific performances by a talented cast. Though the show's setting has shifted from Philly to Oyster Bay, Long Island, the musical has all the comical plot twists and turns of the original together with those Porter favorites, including several that were not in the film.
Wealthy, aloof Tracy Lord (Megan Nicole Arnoldy) is getting ready for her wedding at her parents' Long Island estate in 1938. She was married once before, to the equally well-heeled Dexter C.K. Haven (Paul Schaefer), but his tendency to tipple led to the breakup. Now she's engaged to the self-made but stuffy George Kittredge (Jon Reinhold). A couple of tabloid reporters, photographer Liz Imbrie (Jenny Lee Stern) and writer Mike Connor (Ben Dibble), have been sent to the Lord estate to cover the wedding. Plans go awry when Dexter shows up to try to win Tracy back, and Tracy begins to have romantic feelings for Mike after getting drunk on champagne at a party the night before the wedding. In her confused state the morning after, Tracy must decide which of these three men she really loves enough to marry.
Anzalone directs this production with a humor that outdoes its predecessors and brilliantly matches his performers' playful antics with Porter's lyrics of love and longing. Act 1 is musically the more easygoing half of the show, with songs like "What Is This Thing Called Love?" — sung with forlorn abandon by Schaefer — that clue us in to Dexter's still-smoldering love for Tracy. The mood lightens with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," that ironic take on wealth jovially sung by Stern and Dibble. Dan Schiff, too, turns in a splendid performance throughout as the gin-swilling Uncle Willie, especially in numbers like "She's Got That Thing."
The action ramps up in the second act as the party gets well under way with riotous, rousing numbers like "Let's Misbehave," accompanied by some fleet-footed tapping. The tempo slows down with the ballad "Just One of Those Things" (sung by Schaefer), which feels shoehorned into the plot, though Porter devotees are likely to forgive its gratuitous insertion. But the pace picks up again with Schiff's rendition of "Say It With Gin," as well as with "Well, Did You Evah!," charmingly sung by Arnoldy, Stern, Schiff, and the talented ensemble. Robert Andrew Kovach's practical, '30s-inspired set design, together with Paul Black's energetic lighting, heighten the party atmosphere, and Mary Rolino's costumes, with striped jackets for the men and colorful knee-length dresses for the women, also evoke the subtle yet festive elegance of the age.
Grace Gonglewski as Margaret, Dan Olmstead as Seth, and Cambria Klein as Tracy's younger sister, Dinah (played by Alexis Gwynn at some performances), lend the show delightful comic touches as the rest of the Lord family. It must be said that the entire cast creates a memorable sparkle onstage as effervescent as champagne. And when the whole company gathers together for the finale of the show's anthem, "True Love," it's nearly impossible not to sing along.
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