“High Society,” is currently on at Richmond Theatre. One of the classics of modern musical comedy written by the great Cole Porter has been wonderfully revived and rethought in a sparkling new production from the Bros Theatre Company. Cast, crew and creatives have done a fantastic job in putting on a hugely entertaining and utterly joyous show full of outstanding performances from actors, singers and dancers, featuring some of the most justifiably famous and most cherished songs in the repertoire: “Ridin’ High”, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, “True Love” and “Let’s Misbehave.” Most people will know High Society from the 1956 Hollywood film version starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. This production directed incisively by Deb McDowell brings all the glamour of Hollywood to Richmond. It’s a treat not to be missed.
Cole Porter had his first hit with “Kiss Me Kate” (1949) which was based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Porter carried on the idea of taming a rebellious young woman in High Society. The plot centres around the Heiress Tracy Samantha Lord (Heather Stockwell, wonderful) and her three suitors. As does Bobbie in the new version of Sondheim’s Company now showing at the Gielgud theatre. She must choose between the conventional bore George Kittredge (Jason Thomas), the naïve young “radical,” the journalist Mike Connor (Jacob Botha) and the debonair socialite C.K. Dexter Haven (Nick Moorhead). The setting is her parents mansion in Oyster Bay, Long Island. It’s a bit like “The Great Gatsby” but with singing, dancing and a happy ending.
Heather Stockwell gives a fine portrayal of Tracy Lord, the beautiful and privileged daughter of a New England Plutocrat, Seth Lord (Martin Wilcox). Her name indicates her social status, she’s a Lord. She comes on stage in riding boots and jodhpurs, whip in hand as she sings “Ridin’ High.” In both senses of that term: horse riding and socially. So Tracy is spoilt and frivolous, leading a life of leisure. The gilded age is evoked in Mike Leopold’s set of a Georgian country house, with servants everywhere handing out non-stop champagne, with views overlooking Oyster Bay. Into this bubble of privilege come two journalists, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie (Bex Wood, wonderful) looking for a scoop about the idle rich. Their arrival at the country house and first glimpse inside this world is the trigger for the famous “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Mike makes out he doesn’t, but as with so many young radicals he quickly gets a taster for the high life and deluded falls in love with Tracy despite it being obvious to everyone that Liz loves him. This theme of loving the wrong person is taken up throughout the show. In fact an alternative title for “High Society” would be “True Love” the song with which Act 1 ends.
There is some wonderful knockabout comedy as Liz tries to avoid the advances of Uncle Willie (Carl Smith) as he pursues her whist singing “I’m Getting Myself Ready For You!” For me the comic highlight of the evening was “I Love Paris.” Here Tracy and Dinah (Alice Bonney, wonderful) dressed in tutus and speaking French, tease and mock the two earnest journalists Mike and Liz. 13 year old Alice Bonney steals the show every time she’s on stage. Her timing and delivery are devastating. Alcohol plays a big part in “High Society.” Not only as the gilded elite always have a glass of champagne in hand but because it acts as a plot device. Comically in the numbers “Lets Misbehave” and “Say it With Gin” but also psychologically, in the way in which alcohol lets people say and do things that are true to themselves. In vino veritas.
I have given the bare outlines of the plot and to add more would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say that Tracy makes the right choice in the end. “High Society” is a feel good musical comedy from the golden age of American Broadway and Hollywood. The age of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein and of course Cole Porter. If you want to have a good time go and see “High Society,” it’s the tops.
By John O’Brien