First published in The Times, Tuesday May 30 2017
The 1956 film High Society was one of the biggest box office hits of the year. Yet the MGM musical is considered a pale imitation of The Philadelphia Story, the play and film on which it is based. Even on its original release one reviewer called it “as dated today as the idle rich”. What one remembers of the musical is the iconic staging of some of Cole Porter’s best-loved songs: Bing Crosby serenading Grace Kelly with True Love on a yacht; Bing and Frank Sinatra teaming up for a cracking rendition of Well, Did You Evah!
John Durnin, the artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, said that he hoped to recapture the sharpness and sophistication of Philip Barry’s romantic comedy play (which revived the career fortunes of its star, Katherine Hepburn) in this stage version of High Society. The strength of Arthur Kopit’s book helps Durnin achieve this objective up to a point, even if his mission is ultimately scuppered by the misshapenness of the musical as a whole.
Pic: Douglas Robertson
Helen Mallon succeeds in finding the requisite mix of waspishness and uncertainty in her performance as Tracy Lord, the flinty socialite whose vulnerability slowly surfaces on the eve of her wedding to the nouveau riche dullard, George Kitteridge (Alan Mirren). The plot, slim as it is, revolves around Tracy’s romantic dilemma as she is thrown into romantic encounters with three very different men: Kitteridge, Mike Connor (Cameron Johnson), a reporter sent to spy on Tracy’s family for a gossip magazine, and her former husband, CK Dexter Haven (Alex Scott Fairley), who still loves her.
If the premise sounds like a forerunner of the Abba musical Mamma Mia, there is more than a hint of the jukebox about the score here, which strings together Cole Porter songs old and new, sometimes to moving effect but sometimes with little more than tangential reference to what is happening at any particular moment. Songs are also used to pad out the play’s overlong second half, all of which takes place on the night of the pre-wedding party.
Pic: Douglas Robertson
Durnin’s production is at its best in the show’s more intimate moments. The True Love sequence is nicely staged, with Mallon downstage and Scott Fairley a silhouette in the background, while Johnson gives a lovely rendition of You’re Sensational. Though the live band, led by Jon Beales, is strong, some of the big numbers lack fizz, with certain members of the ensemble better suited to hoofing and singing than others. Mallon and Scott Fairley are reasonably well matched but they are overshadowed by the second-lead pairing of Johnson and Rebecca Elise as Liz Imbrie, who give a sparkling performance of another Porter standard: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?