Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2009
One of the things I get to do in my day job as a church secretary is help bereaved families design their loved one’s memorial service bulletin. It is not unusual for them to bring me a cherished old photo from 50 years ago and ask me to scan it, print it, and then Xerox it. I have to gently explain to them that by the time I do all that, they will be lucky if the image on the bulletin resembles a human being, let alone their loved one. The more you mess with an image, the more pixilated and indistinct it becomes.
That is what has happened to Philip Barry’s Philadelphia Story in the nearly 60 years it took to get from straight play (1939) to eponymous film (1940) to musical film – High Society (1956) – and, finally, to stage musical (1998). Notice the huge time lag between the last two incarnations. What the Mac-Haydn is producing is the final iteration. The image is pretty thoroughly blurred.
When you see a dismal production, you have to consider carefully the source of the problem. The first cause of trouble I could identify here was that I was seeing not only the first public performance of the production, but the first production of the season. This cast and crew has not yet had time to get used to each other, to how an audience reacts to them and to the material, and to the venue – the Mac-Haydn is a unique house. I am sure that during the two week run of this show things will get better and brighter and tighter.
In its non-musical forms, The Philadelphia Story starred Katharine Hepburn, for whom the role of Tracy Lord was specifically written. There is only one Katharine Hepburn, but she couldn’t sing. Neither could Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, who co-starred with her in the highly successful 1940 film. So for the 1956 film musical MGM hired Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, the two biggest male recording artists of the era. And in the Hepburn role they put Grace Kelly (after Elizabeth Taylor was unavailable), who also couldn’t sing, but Cole Porter wrote True Love just for her limited range and the single went gold.
And they made the movie all about music, turning the Grant/Crosby character, C.K. Dexter Haven, into a jazz musician and signing Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong to the film.
There is only one Louis Armstrong. So when Arthur Kopit set about turning “High Society” into a stage musical they had to change the Dexter Haven character yet again (now he designs yachts), remove the great jazz music, and turn Tracy Lord into a singing role, because what kind of a musical leading lady are you going to attract if her character has no solos?
Kopit’s script is very faithful to Barry’s original play, more faithful to that than to the screenplay for High Society. But even with a wise return to the original, the characters and plot remain watered down and their identities fuzzy. This is one of those See Your Favorite Movie Live On Stage shows, but The Philadelphia Story is better known and considered a better film than High Society. Are the film fans in the audience coming to see Katharine Hepburn, Gary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart or Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra? (Can you GET two actresses more different than Hepburn and Kelly??) Either way, those are the very people they are guaranteed NOT to see.
Barry intended Tracy Lord to be 24 years old. Grace Kelly was 26 (it was the last film she made before her marriage) but Crosby and Sinatra were in their 40s, and Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart were in their 30s. Crystal Mosser, who plays Tracy at the Mac-Haydn is probably close to the right age for the role, but we are used to seeing much older and wiser men surrounding her than Jeffrey Funaro, as her Ex, Dexter, Jason Whitfield, as her unfortunate finance, George Kittredge, and Chris Cooke, as Macauley “Mike” Connor, the scandal sheet reporter with whom Tracy has a brief night-before-the-wedding skinny-dip. Tracy may be young and foolish, but on film the men from whom she has had to choose have had an almost fatherly air.
As directed by Doug Hodge, sparks never fly between Mosser and any of her men-folk, and the script and score don’t give any of her potential mates a chance to define themselves. The score is by Cole Porter, and it contains both songs he wrote for the 1956 film, and songs he wrote for entirely different properties. Any surprise that some of them don’t seem to fit?
Why does Dexter has a duet with Tracy’s pre-teen sister Dinah, but not with Tracy? The character of Dinah, who, in the original, is a saucy sparkler secretly pulling the strings on Tracy’s romances, is barely comic relief by this version. I saw Sarah Bobok as Dinah, and was not captivated. My colleague, Peter Bergman, saw Kaitlyn Pearson in the role and liked her very much.
Of the three gentlemen vying for Tracy’s affections, Cooke has the most fully rounded role, and he does a nice job of it. I loved his drunken rendition of Sensational but disliked having Mike and Tracy both so drunk by the swimming pool scene that they were clearly blinded by alcohol-fueled lust and not love.
A lot of people are drunk by Act II of this show, but no one more so than dear Uncle Willie (John Saunders). Come to think of it, he was drunk before the overture started and he stays cheerfully and hilariously sloshed throughout. Saunders, a handsome, versatile, and talented actor, provides the one really funny and interesting performance in this production, which will be his only Mac-Haydn appearance this summer.
The only other thoroughly entertaining thing on the stage, and luckily they are on stage a lot, is the chorus, ably choreographed by Kelly Shook. They provide fabulous dancing scene changes and funny social commentary on the dreary proceedings of the plot. As always, the Mac-Haydn has assembled a company of attractive, talented young people who exude energy and enthusiasm. I am looking forward to seeing more of all of them as the season progresses.
We are no longer in the Philadelphia Main Line, nor in the Newport, Rhode Island, setting of the 1956 film, but, apparently, in Oyster Bay on Long Island, close enough to the water to see the True Love moored on the Sound. That and all those dancing servants are the closest this production gets to real High Society.
High Society runs through June 7 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009