“Not bad for a 35 year old”
Kevin Spacey’s swansong as artistic director at the Old Vic doesn’t open officially until next week but I only have a handful of days left for the above quote to remain pertinent to myself so I’m writing up High Society now – the usual disclaimers about previews apply. Maria Friedman’s directorial debut was the highly critically acclaimed Merrily We Roll Along so it makes sense for her to return to the world of musical theatre with this Cole Porter classic, given added spin here as the venue remains in the round.
It’s a funny old piece though, Arthur Kopit’s book is based on Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story and follows the trials of Tracy Lord (I didn’t know they had Tracys in the 1930s), a rich socialite about to get married who suddenly finds herself with three suitors – her dull fiancé, a charismatic tabloid journalist and her dashing ex-husband. As the pre-wedding parties start and the champagne flows liberally, there’s decisions to be made and some of Porter’s finest songs to be sung but little real fizz, to start with at least.
An inspired improvised piano-playing prologue from Joe Stilgoe and the live preparation of a breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes aside, it didn’t feel like the energy was quite there yet for the first half – though I have my doubts about the story in all honesty – especially compared to what happens after the interval. For Friedman finally cuts loose, letting her company and Nathan M Wright’s choreography run riot in an ecstatic extended sequence to ‘Let’s Misbehave’ which is just joyous to watch.
From then on, the production nails the home run – an accomplished and amusing Kate Fleetwood making her choice between the swoonsomely spectacular Rupert Young as the ex, a deliciously dapper Jamie Parker as the avid reporter and silver fox Richard Grieve as the starchy fiancé. Strong support comes from Annabel Scholey as a fellow tabloid hack, Ellie Bamber as Tracy’s dry younger sister and Jeff Rawle’s gin-swigging uncle, and Theo Jamieson’s musical direction has a glorious vibrancy.
So, quite literally a show of two halves for me. And one full of ideas that range from good, such as using the chorus as domestic staff to effect the scene changes, whilst reprising the song just gone, to the ‘hmm, maybe not’ as in the boats… It is a rather fun production in the end though, once it gets there, making entertaining use of the staging with multiple exits and levels keeping things interesting throughout. It might not be true love just yet but it’s a swell party to be sure.