by arrangement with MusicScope and Stage Musicals Limited of New York
Ovation is proud to present
Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Arthur Kopit
Additional Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead
Based on the play ‘The Philadelphia Story’ by Philip Barry
& The Turner Entertainment Motion Picture ‘High Society’
Directed by John Plews
Musical Supervision by Oli Jackson
Choreography by Lee Proud
Musical Director Tom Kelly
Lighting Design by Howard Hudson
Set Design by Fi Russell
Costumes by Geri Spencer
PRODUCED BY KATIE & RACKY PLEWS
High Society played Upstairs at the Gatehouse
18th December 2009 – 31st January 2010
Geri’s love of costume began in childhood, watching classic black and white films every Sunday on the telly. She’s delighted to be part of the High Society team, celebrating the tradition of the great Hollywood musical.
Recent work includes a large scale production of the musical Annie directed by John Payton (First Group Theatre, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai UAE); stylist for Choose Harveys television commercial directed by Phil Hawkins; and image consultant for Heart of London Business Alliance. Previous work includes costume design for the award-winning feature film The Butterfly Tattoo directed by Phil Hawkins; Ghostdancer music video directed by Nathan Theys, short film Jonah’s Quids directed by Adam Watkins; costume maker for the Australian feature film September directed by Peter Carstairs; wardrobe mistress for Dickens Unplugged directed by Adam Long (Yvonne Arnaud Theatre); and personal dresser to the lovely Jane Horrocks on The Good Soul of Szechuan directed by Richard Jones (Young Vic).
High Society, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate.
THE old festive legend has it that kids who are naughty all year can expect nothing but sooty black stuff at Christmas, but the people of Highgate will be glad of a bit of Cole in their stockings this time around.
A true genius of the musical genre, Cole Porter created a masterpiece in High Society; its songs like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Well, Did You Evah will live long in the memory. He would surely have been more than happy at trusting it to the team at Upstairs At The Gatehouse.
Of course, the name of the show and memories of Grace Kelly and Fred Astaire in the film version sell the tickets on their own, but that does not mean corners have been cut.
Kirby Hughes steals the show as Tracy Lord, shoes once filled by Princess Grace as the drunken butterfly of a socialite, blonde and beautiful but ultimately a bit of a twit. Hughes can sing, she can dance, she can do the comedy – she is perfectly cast. In fact, the only grumble was that she didn’t dance more. Some of the frothier dialogue could have been replaced with a few more jazz hands and tap toes, and nobody would have complained.
Ultimately Tracy is too vulgar for you to care too much which of her potential suitors she will end up with on her wedding day.
But even if – like with most shows – we are not left rooting for an underdog to steal the leading lady’s heart, there is a barrel of
sub-plots, clever one-liners and superb choreography to enjoy.
Creating a sense of aristocratic wealth and luxury within the confines of a fringe stage and budget is no mean feat, so it’s a tribute to John Plews’s revival of this Cole Porter confection that it looks almost as good as its classic melodies sound. Fi Russell’s sets feature vine-covered trellises, topiary hedges, and smart striped poolside furniture. Starched servants carry towers of satin-bowed gifts; the eight-piece band plays from inside a giant wedding cake.
The scene is set for Tracy Lord’s nuptials, the centrepiece of Arthur Kopit’s book, based on the 1956 MGM musical, Philip Barry’s Broadway play The Philadelphia Story and its 1940 movie version. And though Plews and his leading lady Kirby Hughes never make us care much what becomes of this spoilt society princess, there is a riot of delicious witty choreography, some tasty performances of real comic flair and an abundance of mouth-watering musical numbers to savour.
As Tracy, Hughes tackles a role memorably played on screen by Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly. To her credit she makes the part her own, but she’s not the most charming or sympathetic heroine. It’s partly the fault of Kopit’s book, in which Tracy is a self-interested creature, her relationships baldly sketched. Still, while Hughes could show more vulnerability, she gets strong support from her three suitors: Peter Kenworthy as her suave ex-husband Dexter Haven, Alex Wadham as her hapless fiancé and Brendan Cull as smitten journalist Mike Connor, on hand to cover the wedding for a gossip rag and poignantly oblivious to the hopeless affections of his photographer, Hayley Emma Otway’s warm, bright-eyed Liz Imbrie.
Appealing though these performers are, they are all outclassed by diminutive Jessica Bastick-Vines’s terrific turn as Dinah, Tracy’s sharp-tongued, sharp-minded, interfering kid sister; and our interest in their romantic entanglements is really maintained only by the score, a collection of Porter gems such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Just One of Those Things, Well, Did You Evah? and True Love. Thanks to Tom Kelly’s barnstorming musical direction and Lee Proud’s dazzling choreography, that’s more than enough.
Swoony, sassy, acrobatic or balletic, the song-and-dance sequences deliver one slick showstopper after another. The story is irredeemably slight; but it’s saved by sheer shoestring pizzazz.
Until the end of January there’s still time to treat yourself to a feast of classic Cole Porter tunes including ‘Let’s Misbehave’ and ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?’ Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate in their impressive revival of High Society.
The musical started out as a 1956 film with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, but is presented here in its belated 1998 Broadway adaptation with additional Porter numbers interpolated. The film took its story, of a wealthy socialite called Tracy Lord whose wedding plans are disrupted by the simultaneous arrival of her ex-husband and an attractive journalist, from the earlier play and film The Philadelphia Story. However, director John Plews has ingeniously transposed the action from its original American setting to Hampshire. So in summary, this production is an Anglicised version of a Broadway adaptation of a Hollywood musical based on an earlier film of a stage play!
While this may sound complicated, the breezy and colourful production makes it all seem effortlessly simple. The music alone is a joy, and the choreography is accomplished. The younger cast members are all of a very high standard, with Peter Kenworthy particularly striking as Tracy’s suave ex-husband Dexter, demonstrating charisma and a warm tone.
While it’s true that some of the quick-fire banter of songs such as ‘Well, Did You Evah!’ gets lost amid the music and on-stage action, this is more than made up for by the exuberant energy of the performers. And if at times the camp bedroom farce and English accents combine into something closer to a Carry On film than anything Porter would recognise, this actually helps to rejuvenate what might otherwise seem quite a dated show.
Definitely not one to miss if you like your musicals as sparkling and heady as vintage champagne.
It’s to the credit of all involved that this new ‘High Society’ feels so effortless in its relocating of Cole Porter’s 1956 MGM musical (or rather the 1998 stage adaptation) from the world of Rhode Island socialites to that of Hampshire toffs. It was always going to be a good fit, with the filthy rich Lord family perfectly suited to being exaggerated into dotty aristos. It’s easier to play them for laughs, most particularly Kirby Hughes’s barking-mad Tracy, who provides an ebulliently cartoonish core to the musical’s mayhem. Unfortunately she doesn’t quite ameliorate the failings of her love interests.
Peter Kenworthy’s Dexter is blandly suave, with little hint of a troubled past, while the Lords’ snobbish aversion to Alex Wadham’s George Kittredge – here a bluff ex-miner from Yorkshire – is surely far more ugly and uncomfortable than was intended.
Ultimately, though, these minor problems can’t derail the joie de vivre of a funny, vibrant production that underscores the Gatehouse’s credentials as one of London’s most reliable fringe musical venues. Lee Proud’s choreography may be on the restrained side, but it’s crisp, comic, and comes with a ‘Let’s Misbehave’ routine that kicks like a drunken mule.
As a movie, High Society was a thief that stole its class. It’s not the familiar MGM polish that’s kept the memory alive, it’s the glittering cast (Crosby, Kelly, Sinatra) plus a small handful of great Cole Porter numbers. So when Arthur Kopit, the playwright of Indians and book writer of Nine, was hired to craft a full-on stage musical from such thin material – itself a flat retread of The Philadephia Story – he had a job on his hands.
Kopit’s answer was to throw songs at it. Heaven knows, the Porter back catalogue is rich in forgotten gems, and a fair few of these turn up in the stage show. Happily it kind of works, as the limp plot now merely serves to link up the numbers.
Director John Plews has had the bold idea of transposing the action to a privileged England. That kind of works too: the True Love is now moored on the Solent, the wannabe millionaires are US interlopers and the British class system rules the roost. It all fits together nicely, although problems lurk beneath.
The romantic shenanigans of society princess Tracy with her ex, Dexter, her soon-to-be second husband George and her sudden squeeze Mike have a sophisticated insouciance when played out in cool America, but this anglicised version takes us to Sandy Wilson country. When lecherous Uncle Willie addresses “I’m Getting Myself Ready for You” to young Liz (an excellent Hayley Emma Otway), The Boy Friend’s Lord Brockhurst is practically in the room.
The orchestrations detract further from the show’s idiom. The instrumental sound is too modern and it drowns the singers. Electric guitars may be swelegant but they’re certainly not elegant, and MD Tom Kelly’s frenetic tempi don’t help.
This fringe production is astonishingly stylish in other ways, though. An outstanding ensemble (Nicola Martin, Brendan Matthew, Adam Pritchard and Yasmin Wakefield) sing, dance, change props and steal scenes with Broadway aplomb. Lee Proud’s choreography is a tight delight and Fi Russell’s scrim set allows for several neat ‘gauze’ moments.
Kirby Hughes is an oddly kooky Tracy, but she overacts with panache and makes an interesting counterpart to Peter Kenworthy’s low-key Dexter. Elsewhere in the cast some less convincing performers have wrongly decided that more is more, but these do not include Jessica Bastick-Vines who gets away with murder as Tracy’s brattish sister. The star turn, though, comes from Brendan Cull in the Sinatra role. He is constantly, sardonically alive, even in his silences.
This is a production that reaches heroically beyond its grasp and, for the most part, gets there. At times it’s hard to remember we’re sitting in a room above a pub.
No carols, no Santa, no snow (on stage – outside is a different matter), no elves, no dame, not even Scrooge or Tiny Tim but nevertheless this lively up-beat show with people skinny-dipping in the middle of the night is right on the button for a Christmastime night out.
Philip Barry’s 1939 play about a couple of journos crashing a country house wedding party weekend to dig up sleaze and getting caught up in the romantic entanglements of the bride and her ex-husband was called The Philadelphia Story, as was the film version a year later, but when in 1956 MGM turned it into a musical, commissioning Cole Porter to write the numbers the location moved to Rhode Island and the title became High Society and when that became a stage show the location became Long Island. That gives a precedent for director John Plews decision to transpose it across the Atlantic and make the setting English. He places it in a Hampshire country house near Buckler’s Hard on the Beaulieu River and it works a treat, though by keeping the reporter and his photographer partner American makes one wonder why a US scandal sheet would be so interested in an English businessman’s private life. I makes a very pleasant change to hear American lyrics sung by English voices in English accents when so often British singers Americanise their voices when singing popular music.
This production makes it seem almost a through composed musical. Has Plews cut some of the spoken dialogue? With music, often a few bars from ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’, accompanying the choreographed furniture and prop changes made by nimble-footed butlers and maids there is very little of the story that is not told in song and the tempo is maintained by almost non-stop action and Lee Proud’s choreography. Fi Russel’s simple set of transparent scrim goes through clever transformations but their simplicity places the emphasis on the performers – not least Nicola Martin, Brendan Matthew, Yasmin Wakefield and Adam Prichard as the household servants: their vitality and the playing of the band under musical director Tom Kelly give the whole show a momentum from which the familiar and much loved numbers seem to effortlessly emerge.
The audience warmed immediately to Peter Kenworthy’s relaxed and charming Dexter Haven, the boat-builder who turns up for his ex-wife’s wedding, his singing unforced and true. Bride Tracy Lord is putting on a bit of a performance for the journalists and it was not until a delicious drunk scene that Kirby Hughes really blossomed in the role (still hitting the high notes despite a throat infection and making coughs seem part of the intended business). Intended bridegroom ex-miner George gets a strong performance from Alex Wadham but he is far too nice for someone family and friends don’t want her to marry, certainly not ‘the last of the Neanderthals’ as they describe him,, Despite their protestations of no class bias, this underlines their snobbishness rather than make it obvious she should ditch him. But Tracy’s sister Dinah is a clear-headed little girl with no pretensions. She clearly adores Dexter and knows that he and Tracy should be back together. The family’s own outspoken critic, she doesn’t miss a thing in Jessica Bastick-Vines cocky, sharp-tongued characterisation.
This production places the emphasis on the family rather than the journalists but they are an excellent pairing in Brendan Cull, who makes it quite understandable why photographer Liz loves him and Hayley Emma Otway plays her with the right mix of worldliness and honesty.
Lecherous Uncle Willie, chasing the chambermaids would have been on Viagra had it been invented and Peter Le Breuilly could have done with an extra boost to get the full out of this gift of a comic role but, along with the bride’s parents (Dympha Le Rasle and Tony Lewis) the older generation are eclipsed by the youngsters in this spirited revival.
Romance and champagne flow in a High Society transported from Long Island to England. Cole Porter’s 50’s musical sees Tracy Lord about to enter into her second marriage, this time to self-made man George Kitteridge. All is about to go to plan when dashing CK Dexter Haven, her first husband, turns up for the wedding celebrations along with a pair of undercover reporters hoping to find a story.
The Gatehouse’s mid-winter production conjures a summery palace in the country from gauze and lighting and re-crafting the scene changes keeps both the story and songs flowing. John Plews’ appreciation of and skill with the musical comedy is apparent throughout, as scene after scene is filled with hilarity both subtle and, artfully, not so. ‘I Love Paris’ is one of many delight-filled excesses of humour, music and dance as Dinah and Tracy revel in creating a fantasy to exceed the reporters’ expectations of a privileged high society.
Kirby Hughes proves both an unforgettable drunk and an exuberant musical actress with her lavishly vivacious portrayal of Tracy. Peter Kenworthy’s adventurous Dexter Haven is suave, charming and a smooth counter to Alex Wadham’s staid Kitteridge. Hayley Emma Otway and Brendan Cull, as the reporters, continue the Gatehouse’s strong casting.
Plews’ Kitteridge is now a northern industrialist, with appropriate accent; a self-important if not irritating bore, which makes the eventual, inevitable outcome enjoyable. And to confirm his unsuitability he demonstrates his love by licking his fiancée’s arm, eliciting cringing from the audience.
Throughout the show, choreographer Lee Proud produces marvel after marvel as he uses every inch of the narrow stage and oodles of imagination to excite and delight with endless magnificent ensemble pieces. ‘Let’s Misbehave’ is a work of art with occasional tap.
The Gatehouse’s High Society adds a fresh perspective which energizes and reanimates this great musical, thanks to some seriously fine work from both the director and choreographer and the charismatic and unforgettable pairing of Hughes and Kenworthy in a production worth sharing far beyond Highgate.