November 01, 1992

Putting on the Ritz

High Society

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Adapted by Carolyn Burns
State Theatre Company

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It began when Philip Barry’s acerbic hit play became the acerbic hit film, The Philadelphia Story. Then some fifteen years later, the play was reworked, ten Cole Porter songs sung to great effect by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong were added and it became the MGM hit musical, High Society. Now, in the State Theatre Company’s production of the same name, Carolyn Burns has fashioned a hybrid which has recaptured the zest in Barry’s text and extended the music from the movie. The result is theatrically accomplished- the plot is clearer, the characters, particularly the women, have more definition, the intelligence of Barry’s writing is enhanced and Carolyn Burns has even discreetly added some wit of her own.

Cole Porter enthusiasts will either think it’s de-lovely that there are nine extra songs or aghast that in these days of music theatre anything goes. One song, Let’s Vocalise, dropped from the original version of High Society, has been restored and, like most of the other ring-ins, works well.

Director Simon Phillips and designer Tony Tripp have created bold images before – the Beardsley Importance of being Earnest for instance- but no-one can be quite ready for the Bloomingsdale wrapper curtain peeling away to reveal an enormous three tiered white wedding cake which then levers open to become the ritzy country house of the Lord ladies. It is quite a cake, this cake -it comes close to eclipsing the show. All the same, it’s a triumph of marzipan.

The plot of High Society is not only speedy, it’s also rather racy which is perhaps why Katherine Hepburn negotiated it better in 1940 than Grace Kelly did in 1956. Tracy Lord, divorced after a brief marriage to C.K. Dexter Haven, an ivy league type turned song writer, is about to marry George Kitteridge. It’s not a popular idea – at least not with Caroline, Tracy’s younger sister, Dexter or new arrival, Macaulay Connor, who, with photographer Liz Imbrie, is getting the goods on the swank wedding for Spy magazine. Then, on the night before nuptials things get rather out of hand. Tracy not only gets a kick from champagne, she also finds herself quite confused in the heart department.

On first night the production had a nervy quality about it. Hardly surprising since the sound system was so full of bugs that singers couldn’t be sure what would happen next. But beyond tha t- things weren’t connecting. With Tripp’s edible design and natty costumes and Karen Norris’ luscious wattage it looked great and, led by pianist Dannie Bourne and trumpeter Peter Gaudion, the band sounded great. Individual performances shone but the show overall didn’t quite have it.

A couple of weeks in performance has done wonders. The band is relaxed and the cast is more together, not only allowing the text to work but giving far more strength to the songs. It might be said that a musical deserves better singers than some of the ones here but everything has a better chance now that the songs are better integrated in the narrative.

True to the Barry text (and the Hepburn performance) Josephine Byrnes gives us an emancipated Tracy Lord. She is forthright In the exchanges with her father (somewhat absently played by Kevin Miles) and sparkling in the party scenes. The part of Liz Imbrie has been highlighted and freshened in Carolyn Burns’s adaptation and Helen Buday is splendid- wry and knowing. Teaming with Marty Fields, looking like the young Walter Matthau, as Connor, the duets for Who Wants to be a Millionaire and You’ve Got That Thing are the most assured in the show. In solos Fields is not too bad himself in You’re Sensational and Helen Buday’s In the Still of the Night uses an additional song to fine dramatic effect.

In the linking role of C.K., John McTernan is pleasing- adroitly steering the unfolding plot in Act II. As the kid sister, Charmaine Gorman does a lot well – vocalising, hoofing and handling her share of bratty dialogue. In the Morning No, her duet with Bob Hornery as Uncle Willy, is a great moment and an astute addition to the show. Hornery has admirably toned down his work since opening – getting rid of the monocle in Act I can only have helped . With so many additional songs everybody gets one – Lorrae Desmond moves wickedly forward with Nobody’s Chasing Me and Philip Holder, as George, bursts into I Worship You. What looked like uncomfortable self-parody on first night is now starting to work but I’m still not sure where his southern drawl came from.

By the time it reaches Melbourne and Brisbane High Society is likely to be in good form. It already has a vitality not evident on first night. However, I still find myself ungenerously hesitant about the project. Despite the able adaptation and Simon Phillips’ undoubted directorial panache, High Society, like its MGM and Philadelphia antecedents, is fun but just seems too old-fangled to be true.

The Adelaide Review, December, 1992.

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