— Steve Maddock and Jennifer Lines in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of High Society. Photo by Tim Matheson.
The Arts Club closes its season with Cole Porter’s High Society, a lightweight musical entertainment with great pedigree. It’s based partly on The Philadelphia Story, a 1939 play written for Katherine Hepburn, made into a movie starring Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, and partly on the 1956 movie High Society, which musicalized The Philadelphia Story by adding Porter’s songs.
High Society was a last-gasp summit of American pre-rock n’ roll musical royalty, featuring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, as well as Grace Kelly in the Hepburn role—her final film before leaving the biz to become Princess Grace of Monaco.
The original play and movie, the adapted movie musical, and the stage musical (book by American playwright Arthur Kopit) all tell the story of wealthy Tracy Lord who, on the eve of her wedding to dull, humourless George Kittredge, is wooed by ex-husband Dexter Haven and scandalmonger journalist Mike Connor.
Kopit, unfortunately, tells the story least well. The dialogue in this stage version lacks the sparkle and wit that made The Philadelphia Story a classic. This version incorporates most of the movie musical’s score—some of Porter’s least interesting songs—although, to its credit, it also adds four or five of his better numbers.
Fortunately, director Bill Millerd has the sparkling Jennifer Lines in the Hepburn/Kelly role of Tracy, and she’s in fine voice, especially on “It’s All Right with Me.” Todd Talbot, who never gives a bad performance, plays the smooth Grant/Crosby character Dexter with appropriate charm. He gets to show off some fancy dance moves on his “Just One of Those Things” solo (about the only time you really notice Valerie Easton’s choreography) but musical director Ken Cormier’s arrangement is too fast for that great song. Daniel Arnold turns in an earnest Mike Connor, more Stewart than Sinatra. Steve Maddock has the thankless role of George.
Norman Browning gives the standout comic performance as alcoholic Uncle Willie and leads the liveliest ensemble number, “She’s Got That Thing.” Bridget Esler is sweet as Tracy’s little sister Dinah. Lauren Bowler, as Mike’s journalist partner Liz, has little to do until her ballad “He’s a Right Guy,” when you realize she has the best voice in the show.
The 1930s set by Alison Green and costumes by Phillip Clarkson add some visual zip.
I left the theatre thinking about the generic title and whether it might have been meant as a subtle comment on the drinking problems of Tracy, Dexter and Uncle Willie, one of whose songs is an audience favourite, “Say It with Gin.”