What a swell show this is

Meals on tap: One of the big numbers in this new production of High Society Pictures: Pamela Raith

High Society

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

 WEST End style and glitz, elegant, even swellegant sets, fabulous costumes and the songs of Cole Porter –well, did you evah – what a swell show this is.

Porter is a songwriting giant of the  20th century and this is a masterclass of his art with a string of numbers which are not just thrown in to justify paying the band but move the story on with Porter's trademark witty, elegant lyrics.

The 1956 film had Hollywood royalty with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in the lead roles - Kelly's last film incidentally before she left to become real royalty in Monaco, and this stage version remains fairly true to the original.

The setting is around the same time, somewhere amid the rich and even richer on the coast on Long Island where divorced socialite Tracy Samantha (she hates Sam) Lord is about to be married to the staid, upright George Kittredge, a man who could bore for England, or America in this case.

Enter ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, who arrives on his yacht True Love along with reporter and photographer Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie who are there to secretly cover the nuptials as part of a deal to keep daddy, Seth Lord's affair with a New York showgirl out of scandal sheet, Spy magazine.

Tracy, is marrying George but really still loves Dexter, who in turn still loves her, while Connor falls in love with her as well and she is left having to choose between the three of them the morning after a swell (as in champagne soaked head) party.

Sophie Bould as divorcee Tracy set for her swell wedding party

It's not complicated and we all know the ending as soon as the plot peeks around the wings but who cares, it is fun, frothy and a couple of hours of pure escapism into a world we can only dream about – if it ever existed at all.

Michael Praed gives us a very laid back Dexter, suave, elegant – that word again – full of quick quips and one liners, and with a pleasant voice while Sophie Bould is a headstrong Tracy, who knows exactly what she wants, but is too pig-headed to admit it. Her scene when heading, unsteadily, into newt territory and the bleary-eyed fizzy brained morning ooze talent.

Playing a drunk convincingly is never easy and she manages it without  a hic . . . sorry hitch. She also has a lovely voice after being drowned out a little in the first night overture, an occupation hazard for opening scenes on first nights in a new theatre.

Keiron Crook is a suitably tedious George, a king-sized wet blanket while Matt Corner took up the notebook and pen of Mike Connor in the absence of regular Daniel Boys and did a splendid job showing he is ready for bigger things. Without being told no one would have known he was the understudy and he also showed he had a more than decent voice.

There was good support from Craig Pinder as Seth and Marilyn Cutts as mum Margaret Lord while Katie Lee as Tracy's teenage sister Dinah adds humour and a persistent adolescent would-be cupid to the mix.

Veteran Teddy Kempner plays it for laughs as Uncle Willy and succeeds. Others might say it with flowers , Uncle Willy  would rather Say it with Gin, which must be worth another drink, or three. Whenever he appears fun follows, mind you if you can throw a party for 700 guests at the drop of a hat without batting an eyelid, life probably is rather fun.

Willy is taken with photographer Liz Imbrie, played by Alex Young, and chases her around Long Island, or at least the stage under the impression she is chasing him. She in turn is in love with Mike who seems to be the only person who doesn't know it. Her He's a right guy is one of the show highlights.

There is also good support from an ensemble of cooks, waiters and maids who double up as scene shifters in a very clever setting from Francis O'Connor which gives us a terrace, a pool, ballroom with sweeping staircase and even a seashore with just a few columns, French windows on wheels and sticks of furniture, all helped by Chris Davey's clever lighting which ranges from sunny terrace to romantic moonlight. O'Connor was also responsible for the excellent period costumes.

Michael Praed as Dexter who lost Tracy once and doesn't want to do so again

The real star of the show though is the music including extra Porter numbers added to the original film score. It is littered with standards from the great American songbook such as What is this thing called love, Who want to be a millionaire, Let's misbehave, Just one of those things, It's all right with me, Well, did you evah and True love.

Which brings us to the excellent seven piece orchestra under musical director Michael Haslam who sounded much bigger than they were - the wonders of technology and doubling and even trebling up on instrument.

Choreography from Andrew Wright  gave us a bit of tap, a bit of vaudeville and plenty of interest with some big dance numbers as well as some vignettes  in passing to keep up momentum as blocks  were wheeled around for scene changes.

The production is based not only on the 1956 film but also on the original 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story by Phillip Barry with a book by Arthur Kopit and additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead.

Well directed by Anna Linstrum High Society is high on swellegant entertainment. To 18-05-13

Roger Clarke

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