Review: ‘High Society’

The bubbly flows freely in the "new" Cole Porter musical "High Society" -- in fact we're all but hit over the head with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot -- but the show itself is sadly flat.

The bubbly flows freely in the “new” Cole Porter musical “High Society” — in fact we’re all but hit over the head with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot — but the show itself is sadly flat. The last musical entry in the Broadway season is a polished, high-styled production stuffed with Porter nuggets of various vintages, but it’s light on romance, sparkle and personality — the things that fairly blazed off the screen in the celebrated 1940 film “The Philadelphia Story,” adapted from the Philip Barry play that’s also the original source for this stage version.

The program credits Barry’s play, which revived Katharine Hepburn’s stalled movie career when she duplicated her stage success on film, as well as the somewhat less scintillating 1956 movie musical with Grace Kelly, from which the new show borrows a title and much of its Porter score. Melissa Errico is the current Tracy Lord, an Oyster Bay heiress on the eve of a second marriage when her dancing partner from the first one shows up to spoil her plans.

Errico is breathtakingly beautiful here. In Jane Greenwood’s lovely dresses and wide-legged pants, her radiant fair skin set off against dark curls, she does indeed recall those great screen goddesses that are no more. But her acting, as with many another goddess, is breathtakingly bland. Errico’s idea of upper-crust elegance seems to be linked to enunciation: She delivers her dialogue as if she’s giving elocution lessons at a finishing school. And her comic instincts tend toward the obvious, while Barry’s generally joke-free play relied on nuanced acting for its humor to bloom.

(Arthur Kopit, who supplied this efficient adaptation, seems to have tried to make up for a lack of comic chemistry among the show’s principals by accenting the wisecracks of Tracy’s little sister Dinah, an act of desperation whose sole beneficiary is Anna Kendrick, the young actress who milks them with admirable gusto.)

Comparisons to Hepburn are unfair, but unavoidable, so snugly did the role of Tracy fit Hepburn’s unique blend of casual regality and essential earthiness. Hepburn and her peerless co-stars James Stewart and Cary Grant effortlessly communicated both the hard-edged surfaces of these sophisticates and the anxious, yearning souls beneath the brittle exteriors. Only when she is singing — she is in heavenly voice — does Errico give us a glimpse of Tracy’s soul, and she is not singing often enough.

As C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy’s first husband and putative soul mate, Daniel McDonald is handsome, stiff and charmless. To be fair, Kopit doesn’t give him much help; for characterization, he’s been given an ascot to wear, and that’s about it. In general, the superabundance of songs seems to have put a squeeze on time for character and plot development.

McDonald does sing pleasantly, but his earnest delivery of “Just One of Those Things” is a lesson in how not to handle a Cole Porter song. Vet musical director Paul Gemignani is to blame for this and a similar misstep, when Errico has to croon, most unhappily, a lyric about singing a song “in the wrong style” while doing just that.

By contrast, for a lesson in Porter perfection, there’s the delightful John McMartin, whose performance as the chronically soused Uncle Willie is chief among “High Society’s” too incidental pleasures. Like Fred Astaire, Stewart and others, McMartin proves with his insouciant, offhand delivery of “I’m Getting Myself Ready for You” and “Say It With Gin” that it’s not vocal prowess but elan that Porter tunes require.

And McMartin almost alone brings to the show a gentle air of melancholy that gives this souffle some humanity: Strangely, the most tender moment in this romantic comedy is shared between Uncle Willie and Dexter over a bottle of gin, the bane of Dexter and Tracy’s marriage and the boon that gets Willie through life.

The show’s other charms include the tart Randy Graff as Liz Imbrie, scandal sheet photographer and prey of Uncle Willie. Her solo, “He’s a Right Guy,” is delivered with torchy simplicity. Stephen Bogardus is fine as her cohort and secret love, Mike Connor, although his role has almost been reduced to a cameo here.

Loy Arcenas’ sets offer some needed enchantment, too, with their soothing whites and sky blues. But under Arcenas’ chic deco proscenium, “High Society” too often fails to fizz. Des McAnuff added his input to director Christopher Renshaw’s efforts, but no magic has been worked. The mysterious alchemy that makes a musical soar is absent here. As the song says, it’s just one of those things.

High Society

St. James Theatre; 1,623 seats; $75 top


A Lauren Mitchell and Robert Gailus, Hal Luftig and Richard Samson, Dodger Endemol Theatricals presentation, in association with Bill Haber, of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and book by Arthur Kopit, based on the play "The Philadelphia Story" by Philip Barry, and the Turner Entertainment Co. motion picture "High Society"; additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Directed by Christopher Renshaw. Musical staging, Lar Lubovitch; musical direction, Paul Gemignani.


Sets, Loys Arcenas; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Tony Meola; orchestrations, William David Brohn; dance music arrangements, Glen Kelly; casting, Jay Binder; production supervisor, Steven Zweigbaum. Opened April 27, 1998. Reviewed April 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
Musical numbers: "High Society," "Ridin' High," "Throwing a Ball Tonight," "Little One," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," "I Love Paris," "She's Got That Thing," "Once Upon a Time," "True Love," "Let's Misbehave," "I'm Getting Myself Ready for You," "Just One of Those Things," "Well, Did You Evah?," "You're Sensational," "Say It With Gin," "It's All Right With Me," "He's a Right Guy," "Samantha."


Polly, downstairs maid - Jennifer Smith Arthur, butler - Glenn Turner Chester, house man - Barry Finkel Sunny, scullery maid - Kisha Howard Stanley, house boy - Jeff Skowron Patsy, cook - Betsy Joslyn Peg, upstairs maid - Dorothy Stanley Edmund, major domo - William Ryall Margaret Lord - Lisa Banes Dinah Lord - Anna Kendrick Tracy Samantha Lord - Melissa Errico Uncle Willie - John McMartin C.K. Dexter Haven - Daniel McDonald Mike Connor - Stephen Bogardus Liz Imbrie - Randy Graff George Kittredge - Marc Kudish Seth Lord - Daniel Gerroll

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