By Joseph Hurley
HIGH SOCIETY. Based on the play “Philadelphia Story,” by Phillip Barry. Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Directed by Des McAnuff. Featuring Melissa Errico. At the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
Among the ironies of the literary world is the fact that two of the best and most penetrating chroniclers of the ways of wealthy WASPs were both Irish and Catholic, and, by definition, outsiders. Those observers were, of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald and, perhaps less obviously, playwright Philip Barry, whose best-known and most adroit social comedy, “The Philadelphia Story,” is back on Broadway now, albeit in a slightly indirect manner, having served as the source of the “new” Cole Porter musical, “High Society.”
“The Philadelphia Story,” written in 1939 as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, who had impressed Barry when she starred in the road company and subsequent film version of an earlier play by the author, “Holiday,” was a conscious attempt on the playwright’s part to humanize a brilliant young actress whose arrogant attitude and upper-class hauteur had alienated her from the affections of the general public.
Barry was so successful in knocking Hepburn off her pedigreed pedestal that director George Cukor’s 1940 film version of the play remains an imperishable comedy classic, just as the role of the snobbishly reckless heroin, Tracy Lord, appears to belong eternally to the thorny but eventually beloved American icon for whom it was created.
Hepburn’s long shadow fell across the 1956 movie musical adaptation, “High Society,” which, in addition to the title, provided the new stage musical with about half the songs being heard at the St. James Theatre, the others having been borrowed from a number of other Porter scores.
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The results are decidedly mixed, including the impact made by Melissa Erico, a graceful and gifted singing actress, much of whose best work to date has been in non-musical roles at the Irish Repertory Theatre, where she played the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” last year, and, a season earlier, was a particularly charming Gwendolyn in Tony Wlton’s acclaimed staging of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Ironically, Errico seems to be trying desperately hard to please, from her entrance, singing the interpolated “Ridin’ High,” to the show’s final curtain, which is, all in all, something Barry’s imperious Tracy would never do. Errico, around whom the current project was structured, sings proficiently and looks wonderful in the costumes Jane Greenwood created to evoke 1938, the year in which the story is set. What she lacks, and what the show’s director, Des McAnuff, failed to help her achieve, is precisely the icy, uncaring quality one after another of Barry’s characters, her debonair ex-husband and her alcoholic rake of an uncle, to name just two, identify as her most poisonous aspect.
Without that characteristic, Tracy is just another attractive, spoiled former debutante stumbling toward an unsuitable marriage, a union which will probably turn out to be just one of a string of such ill-advised unions.
Still, the scheme of the show is refreshingly simple and clean, from Loy Arcenas’ witty and, for Broadway, uncomplicated scenery, to the creative team’s deployment of the 17-member cast, a modest complement for a major musical.
Arthur Kopit’s book stays respectfully close to Barry’s original, allowing for the losses which necessarily occur when a solidly crafted stageplay is planed down for a musical book.
Susan Birkenhead, an able lyricist who came to grief earlier this season with the lamentable “Triumph of Love,” is responsible here for what the program calls “new lyrics” on one hand, and “additional lyrics” on the other, the line between them being difficult to determine. Whatever she may have contributed to such numbers as “Well, Did You Evah?” and “Once Upon a Time,” not to mention the title song, seems unobtrusive and relatively harmonious.
“High Society” may not be one of the musical theater’s great works, but it has the not inconsiderable virtue of positioning its people in the foreground and keeping them there from start to finish, while the scenery remains where it belongs, resolutely in the background, enabling the performers to put their best faces forward.