November 02, 1992

High Society

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter,
adapted by Carolyn Burns.

State Theatre Company ,
The Playhouse Adelaide Festival Centre.

It’s High Society time again. By the MGM musical out of The Philadelphia Story, the State Theatre Company’s joint production (with MTC, RQTC and Sue Farrelly) has not only added nine Cole Porter songs it has restored some of the zip from Philip Barry’s original text.

Carolyn Burns’ adaptation is an interesting one. She has clarified the plotline, given more depth to the relationships, tweaked the dialogue with well-placed one-liners and even restored a Porter song deleted from the original show.

Director Simon Phillips and designer Tony Tripp have gone for elaborate visual conceits before – the Beardsley Importance of being Earnest for example- but this one takes the cake. In fact the show opens with the Bloomingdales wrapping being torn off a gigantic three-tiered wedding cake set in the centre of a green box stage. This structure, scrolloped with doves and harpies, unhinges to form a creamily opulent location for the second wedding of Tracy Lord.

Even when you’ve seen the Katie Hepburn and Grace Kelly performances the story line of High Society is something of a tangle. Previously married to C.K. Dexter Haven , a successful songwriter, wealthy but unworldly young heiress Tracy Lord is about to marry George Kitteridge. No one much approves, certainly not Tracy’s kid sister Caroline, Dexter or Macaulay Connor who with photographer Liz Imbrie is around to cover the wedding for Spy magazine. The midsummer madness of the pre-nuptial night has Tracy getting a hit not just from champagne but from heartstrings other than those for George.

It’s not exactly Chekhov but the comedy and wit work with pace and precision in the performances. Josephine Byrnes gives a lively credibility to Tracy -helped by access to the Barry script which credits women with more brains than MGM did in 1956. Carolyn Burns’ version brings Liz Imbrie to the fore and Helen Buday
makes the most of the chance, the one-liners crackle, her solo of In the Still of the Night is a well-placed addition and her duets with Marty Fields as Connor are the song and dance highlights of the show.

In the male leads John McTernan, after a shaky start, is affably low key as Dexter, giving generous room for Marty Fields’ splendidly assured work. Bob Hornery goes cheerfully over the top as Uncle Willy – although someone should confiscate the monocle- while Kevin Miles as the absent father is also bewilderingly absent on stage. The production has additional numbers to share around – Lorrae Desmond, as the demure mother of the bride suddenly belts out Nobody’s Chasing Me, Philip Holder, uncomfortable as George (and why the Southern drawl ?) is even more uncomfortable singing I Worship You. Hornery and an exuberant Charmaine Gorman, delightful as the young sister, hit some soft shoe in In the Morning No.

Director Phillips has assembled strong ingredients- smart costumes from Bronwyn Jones (some of her best), a wash of light from Karen Norris and a striking, if less than versatile set. The band led by Peter Gaudion on trumpet and Dannie Bourne on piano play with unobtrusive flair and there are stand-out performances. But the show doesn’t quite click. It has been deflected from 1956 but hasn’t enough spin on it for now. It may gain momentum in forthcoming Melbourne and Brisbane seasons but at present this High Society leaves you somewhere in the middle.

The Australian, November 2 (?), 1992.

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