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In Brief: "High Society"

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After suffering through High Society, I wondered how far back one had to look for a like disaster. Actually, no further than The Capeman. There, too, an unpromising subject was tinkered and tinkered with, handed over to new directors and choreographers, leading to an end justified by any means, and by no means justifiable.

The problem is serendipity, which must never be toyed with. If something works so flawlessly as the beloved movie version of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, which basked in the feeling of rightness down to the last detail, you had best leave it alone. The memory of Hepburn, Grant, Stewart, and the rest -- impeccably cast and sailing at full tilt -- will always defeat subsequent incarnations. Against the mere afterglow of Hepburn, even so beautiful a woman as Grace Kelly, so gifted an actress as Blythe Danner, have proved powerless. And Melissa Errico, despite some good points, is not in their league.

Cole Porter wrote only a few numbers for High Society, the movie-musical version of Barry’s opus, which transposed the action from Philadelphia’s Main Line to Newport’s stately mansions. The current avatar, scripted by Arthur Kopit, transports it to Oyster Bay, although none of the actors can manage the Locust Valley lockjaw that could have made it funny. To eke out the minimal score (Grace Kelly couldn’t sing), the Broadway musical draws on numbers from various Cole Porter shows. But three hurdles promptly spring up. First, some numbers are too well known in their original contexts; second, some are forgotten for good reason and do not justify reuse; third, all feel in their new surroundings like the guest lecturer at a nudist camp who strips naked only to confront a courteously fully clad audience.

Susan Birkenhead has come up with additional and even some new lyrics, but those, too, feel dragged in. So the heroine, Tracy Lord, must become Tracy Samantha Lord to accommodate the song (in this case unrevised) “Samantha,” which sounds rather like naming a famous character Huckleberry Horatio Finn or Calamity Corinna Jane. Miss Birkenhead is not to blame, nor are Des McAnuff, who took over the direction from Christopher Renshaw, and Wayne Cilento, who refurbished Lar Lubovitch’s choreography. Renshaw strikes me as a flash in the pan, and Lubovitch was simply the wrong choice. Even Loy Arcenas, the set designer, was miscast. A specialist in inexpensive, bare-bones scenery, he is not the man for elegance, to say nothing of sumptuousness. Howell Binkley gets a few nice light effects, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes will do, though some who wear them seem ill at ease. That goes especially for that solid actor Daniel Gerroll, miscast as the father, Seth Lord, a thankless role for which he is much too young.

But back to Miss Errico, erroneously cast as the ice goddess with a heart of lust. The actress is superficially animated but cold underneath, the opposite of what is called for. As the debonair C. K. Dexter Haven, Daniel McDonald gives us a nice, all-American juvenile looking for his June Allyson. As the serious writer reluctantly reduced to society journalism, Stephen Bogardus suggests nothing so much as a purringly contented tabloid columnist. Mark Kudisch is a rather too muscle-bound George Kittredge, conveying not so much rise from the working class as an artistically shady background playing Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. In their supporting roles, Lisa Banes and Randy Graff do whatever is possible, and Anna Kendrick makes the precocious brat Dinah very nearly bearable.

I can think of only one reason for seeing High Society, a show in which the singing and dancing servants outclass the masters: John McMartin. This wonderful actor, often underrated and even maligned, does the aging satyr Uncle Willie with a poise, charm, physical agility, and verbal deftness (no one throws a throwaway line with such Frisbee-like perfection) to make all past and future Willies redundant. But even he is finally defeated by material whose frayed edges are as far from haute couture as from high society.


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