Old Vic Theatre, London
For people of a certain age, High Society, alongside West Side Story and My Fair Lady, are the musicals we grew up with, the words practically known by rote.
High Society, the film, was of course based on Philip Barry’s stage play, The Philadelphia Story, written around and partly inspired by Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, the high society thoroughbred, privileged, clever and cold but softening as she comes to terms with her own imperfections. Grace Kelly embodied this ice-maiden (as she was often called) to perfection in the 1956 film also starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm.
In Maria Friedman’s Old Vic production – an appropriate swansong for the Kevin Spacey era – Kate Fleetwood plays her with a feisty, brittle, modern edge. The song `Ridin high’ sees her entering in jodhpurs, white cravat and whip – the very epitome of 1950s US upper-crust outdoor style. By the end, hair soaking from a midnight dip with writer/journo Mike Connor (Jamie Parker), the ice has cracked.
In between, this revival of the original 1998 Broadway stage musical with book by Arthur Kopit and extra songs incorporated from Cole Porter’s back catalogue, becomes a heady mix of spectacular set numbers and nimble use of the Old Vic’s in-the-round setting whilst not altogether escaping the long shadow of the film.
Friedman and her musical arrangers’ approach is fiercely unsentimental. The most effective numbers for example are the ensembles when `what a swell party’ expands to include a double piano jazz duet, young black tap dancer, Omari Douglas cutting up a storm atop a piano and Tracy’s sensuously Rumba-based unbuttoning, `it’s the wrong face…but it’s alright with me’.
What with the tweenies and butlers wheeling in plants, drinks, food – there’s even a pungently real egg & bacon fry-up onstage – there’s a busy sense of indulgent living created by Friedman and designer Tom Pye with his elegant costuming drawn from Dior.
While Porter’s songs are undoubtedly the show’s draw, the real star of the evening, however, is the engaging, twinkle-fingered Joe Stilgoe who, opening the evening, turns any song thrown at him into a rapturously jazzy medley. Utterly brilliant. More please!
First published in Reviewsgate, May 2015
Runs at the Old Vic Theatre to Aug 22, 2015