Jeffrey Funaro and Crystal Mosser; rehearsal photo
High Society, Book by Arthur Kopit; Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter with additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, based on the play The Philadelphia Story by Phillip Barry and the motion picture, "High Society" by Barry and John Patrick. Directed by Doug Hodge.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Meg Dooley and John Saunders; rehearsal photo
"With corned beef hash I’m all through, ‘cause I’m getting myself ready for you."
Understand before you go that there’s a lot of corned beef hash in the Mac-Haydn Theatre’s production of "High Society," their season opener in their theater-in-the-round in Chatham, New York. First things first: forget about the MGM movie with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Celeste Holm and gorgeous costumes and sets. Just forget about it. Next: forget about the jazz score that Cole Porter wrote late in his career in 1956. Finally: forget about the funny lines which peppered the humorous situations in the original play that screenwriter John Patrick kept in the musical film adaptation that sparked this stage show.
Add into the mix the dialogue and new book written by the author of "Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Locked You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad," and "Indians." Throw in twelve Porter songs from the period spanning his entire American career - 1928-1953 - without regard to their sound, consistently sophisticated but not consistent with his 1956 work. Alter some lyrics to suit situations with word groupings that defy the afore-mentioned sophistication. What have you got? "High Society" the show as produced at our local summer showcase.
On top of this find actors who can almost make you believe that they believe what they’re saying, doing and singing. There is no one who can make me buy Tracy Lord singing "Ridin’ High" as her entrance tune. There is no way that Mother Lord can possibly sing "Throwing a Ball Tonight" even helped out by her two daughters and the always merry Uncle Willie. The author, Kopit, manages to take one of the beautiful Porter songs, "You’re Sensational" and convert it into a drunken soporific. And finally, when Tracy gives in to her urges with "It’s All Right With Me," there is little left of Phillip Barry’s character, no hint of Katherine Hepburn or Grace Kelly or Tracy Lord herself. "Just One Of Those Things" as sung by Dexter in the second act does make some emotional sense, at least, and it's very sweetly sung by Jeffrey Furano.
Director Doug Hodge and his choreographer Kelly Shook keep the energetic chorus dancing as much as possible and that helps a lot. The dance movements mix a lot of 1930s and 1940s steps and gestures together which is mystifying as to the period of the piece: the musical film was definitely mired in the 1950's. Outside of "Oyster Bay" as a general description of locale, we don’t know whether we’re in the film’s Newport, somewhere on the Connecticut shore or halfway out on Long Island. I’d pull for the latter based on the New York twang in the speaking voice of actress Crystal Mosser who plays this show’s version of Tracy. We’re certainly nowhere near Philly.
Mosser, and the rest of the cast, make the second act a very pleasant, if confusing, experience, but none of them can save the first act which rambles from style to style without even an apology. She is somewhat uncomfortable in some of her clothing, dances poorly and sings without much distinction. Her acting also leaves a lot to be desired. At least she’s pretty, but that’s not enough for Tracy. There is no hauteur about her. She’s just a girl, and that’s not enough.
As her three swains, Chris Cooke as Mike seems to be the real deal. At least he’s mostly believable throughout the show. Jeffrey Funaro as her former husband Dexter does well, but he never seems to be the odds-on favorite and Jason Whitfield with a telegraphed vocal delivery that smacks of poor acting training is the fiancé George. Put these three in the ring with or without boxing gloves and the clear winner is Cooke. Put them in an elegant soiree and Funaro might come out on top. Whitfield would have to seek some other form of combat.
Heather Dudenbostel plays Liz Imbrie, the Spy Magazine photographer with an unlikely ungainliness. Shirley Booth originated the role on Broadway and even she, with her nasal, Irish twang, must have come off with more grace and desirability that Dudenbostel manages.
John Saunders is fun as Uncle Willie. His progressive drunkenness is excellently performed and his songs are better delivered than most here. His back to back 1930 tunes "Say It With Gin" and "I’m Getting Myself Ready For You" make a nice addition to the second act.
Meg Dooley does all right with Mrs. Lord, rewritten into someone not very interesting in this script and the same can be said for Tom Hagen as her husband. The brightest star, really, is the girl who played Dinah Lord on opening night, Kaitlin Pearson (she alternates with Sara Bobok). She has a wonderful sense of character, delivers her lines with verve and control and should be a model for everyone else in the company in terms of making the best out of a depleted situation unsupported by the musical miniature of a synthesizer where full orchestrations would at least give the show back that lushness that says "money," a commodity around which this play was originally based.
In this show, thank God for the dancers/singers who surround the major players constantly. They kick the temperature of the show up a few notches every time they appear. I call that making the best out of a bad situation. "And if you come to call, we’ll have a ball, ‘cause they’re sensational, that’s all."
High Society plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre through June 7. For schedules and ticket information call the box office at 518-392-9292. The Mac-Haydn is located on Route 203 just south of the intersection of route 66.