High Society continues at the Old Vic, London until 22 August.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Well, did you evah? What a swell party this is! Silly but swelegant and it’s hard not to fall in love with Maria Friedman’s swish, sparkling update of the 1998 Broadway show of the 1956 Frank Sinatra-Grace Kelly-Bing Crosby film of the 1939 classic stage comedy (and 1940 movie) The Philadelphia Story.
Yes, High Society, overflowing with Cole Porter’s greatest melodies, has been around in one form or another all our lives, but we haven’t seen it in London since 2005 at the Shaftesbury when we were subjected to Jerry Hall’s Mother Lord, the original triple non-threat: can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t act.
What a relief therefore to find Barbara Flynn bringing that role beautifully to life, especially her smirk after an unexpected liaison with her old ex.
Friedman and Arthur Kopit, who wrote the book (from the play Philip Barry wrote for Katharine Hepburn), have brought the action forward to 1958, it’s in-the-round, in-your-face, visually gorgeous, amazingly slick with its scene changes (blink and you miss grand pianos popping up through the floor) and the most tremendous fun.
Jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe starts the show as warm-up man by asking for requests – we got a bit of Carmen on the night I went – and his two-piano duel with musical director Theo Jamieson, coming down from conducting the 11-strong band perched above the stage, tees off Act II with a riot of colour, style and glorious sound.
But this is Kate Fleetwood’s night. Better known as a Shakespearean actress, she lets her hair down here in the lead role of Tracy Lord, more Hepburn than Kelly, arriving with game birds slung over her shoulder, a Long Island socialite who has petulantly got rid of the husband she loves (the dashingly handsome Rupert Young) and is about to marry safe, boring social climber George (Richard Grieve).
In turn, she is vain snob, hilariously sozzled wedding-eve drunk, and sad, lost figure who finally realises what a mistake she’s making. It may surprise some, but she has an excellent singing voice too, as her two solos ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘It’s All Right With Me’ amply demonstrate.
It is Fleetwood’s show to make or break and this bold, versatile performance will have everybody loving her.
Great support comes from every quarter with Jamie Parker’s undercover reporter Mike Connor, assigned to write about how Oyster Bay’s idle rich live, the pick. He gets into character wonderfully well and his Act II frolics with Fleetwood are a comic treat.
Parker’s ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ duet with Liz (Annabel Scholey), the fellow hack who adores him but can’t get him to reciprocate, lights up a first act that ends, perhaps a little schmaltzily, with Fleetwood and Young, realising they should never have split up, declaring their ‘True Love’.
So what’s wrong with a bit of schmaltz when it’s the classic song that took Porter to No. 4 in the charts and gave Grace Kelly a gold record simply for duetting with Crosby on the final chorus.
Also a joy is the tomboyish joie-de-vivre of scene-stealer Ellie Bamber as Tracy’s teenage sister Dinah. This feisty young redhead reminded me of a young Kelly Reilly, than which there can be no greater compliment.
Jeff Rawle plays dirty old Uncle Willie to perfection in a massive cast that’s bang on the money at every turn.
It’s hard not to have a good time when there’s such great music about and I haven’t yet mentioned the spectacularly-done ensemble treatment of ‘Let’s Misbehave’ or ’Ridin’ High’, ‘I Love Paris’ and ‘Just One of Those Things’.
Nathan Wright’s high-impact choreography hits peak the more inebriated everyone gets and Omari Douglas’ piano-top tap dance is electric.
Undemanding and daft as it is, Friedman deserves tremendous credit in making it as good and as funny as it can possibly be and anybody who comes out of the Old Vic not singing, humming or dancing is probably dead.
One minor rant: rich people are no more likely to ‘speak proper’ than anybody else, particularly if they are American, but it was disappointing to hear Mother Lord saying: “Between your father and I.” Kopit should not have written it and the director should change it. Young people copy and we have a duty to stop our beautiful language being grammatically abused.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – rising star Ellie Bamber is having a ball in High Society at the Old Vic