Theatre review: High Society never quite reaches any level of ‘swelligence’

Perhaps it was the memories of all the recent Occupy protests, but it was near impossible to feel any connection to the one percenters represented on stage last night in the Arts Club’s production of High Society.

Based on Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story and the 1956 film of the same name, High Society tells the story of Long Island socialite Tracy Lord who is about to be married for the second time to humourless executive George Kittredge. Complicating matters is the return of Tracy’s first husband and the unexpected advances of a gossip writer who is supposed to be there to expose the upper-crust’s excesses.

Another in the jukebox musical genre, the show’s Cole Porter tunes feel tenuous in their connection to Arthur Kopit’s rather tepid book and with a few exceptions are not the best that Mr Porter has to offer.  Even with some of Porter’s more memorable songs like “I Love Paris” and “Let’s Misbehave”, at times I felt like I was listening to a collection of b-sides of his more famous recordings.

Not helping was the unevenness in this cast’s singing.  While Jennifer Lines and Daniel Arnold worked hard to bring some life to Tracy and tabloid reporter Mike Connor, they both seemed to struggle with the music.  Lines did manage to overcome what may have been some opening night nerves as the show progressed, but Arnold’s “You’re Sensational” was anything but.  Conversely, Steve Maddock gave us a wonderful baritone but his uptight George felt too much like the bull in a china shop and Todd Talbot once again showed off his musical skills but felt way too likeable from the gates as the cad Dexter.  The biggest surprise though came from how little chemistry there was between Lines’s Tracy and her three suitors which left me wondering why she would have even entertained the idea of marrying any of them.

Thank heaven for little girls (and older men) though as the two stand-outs of the night were at the opposite ends of the age spectrum.  With delightfully funny performances from Bridget Esler as Tracy’s younger sister and Norman Browning as the young-at-heart Uncle Willie, these two elevated every scene they were in with an understanding of the importance of both comedic timing (Esler) and the strength of a pause (Browning).  Director Bill Millerd should have been pointing the rest of his usually capable cast to these two at every opportunity.

The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of High Society. Photo by Tim Matheson.
The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of High Society. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Musical director Ken Cormier directs his tight little orchestra with confidence but even they aren’t up to the task of selling these particular Porter tunes without the accompanying strong voices.  Valerie Easton’s choreography and Alison Green’s turntable set was as lackluster as the overall production which never quite reaches any level of ‘swelligence’.

2 1/2 of 5 Stars High Society

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter.  Book by Arthur Kopit.  Additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead.  Directed by Bill Millerd.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production.  On stage at the Stanley Theatre through June 24, 2012.  Visit http://www.artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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