‘High Society’ at The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia

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Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story has long been rightly celebrated as a model of wit and sophistication. It inspired a classic movie version the following year and then, in 1956, High Society, a movie musical adaptation with a handful of songs by Cole Porter, who wasn’t too shabby in the wit and sophistication department himself.

Ben Dibble, Megan Nicole Arnoldy, Jon Reinhold, and Paul A. Schaefer. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Ben Dibble, Megan Nicole Arnoldy, Jon Reinhold, and Paul A. Schaefer. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Now, the Walnut Street Theatre (which staged Barry’s original play in 2004) brings us another High Society: the 1998 Broadway adaptation of the movie, which uses six of the nine Porter songs from the movie plus thirteen more songs from Porter’s Broadway catalog. Thanks to Barry’s words and Porter’s lyrics, it still has a lot of wit… but the sophistication has largely been replaced by superficiality. It’s a cute show with a lot of charming elements, including a wonderful supporting cast, but it’s so relentlessly eager to please that it wore me out. And under Frank Anzalone’s fast-paced direction, the actors rush through their scenes, all in a hurry to get to the next big production number.

High Society tells the story of Tracy Lord (Megan Nicole Arnoldy), the uptight, demanding society “goddess” who is brought down to earth by the three men who pursue her – sardonic ex-husband Dexter (Paul A. Schaefer), stuffy fiancé George (Jon Reinhold), and eager reporter Mike (Ben Dibble). Arthur Kopit’s book (which transports the action to 1938 Long Island, just to be different, I suppose) uses big chunks of dialogue from Barry’s play, yet the central plot seems peculiarly uninvolving. Tracy’s transformation, which is the point of the show, seems like an afterthought. (And Porter’s timeless songs seem like an afterthought too – most of them are completely disconnected from the plot.)

The leading players seem like they’re trying too hard to be cheery, especially Arnoldy, who gives a nuance-free, ‘please-love-me performance.’ At the beginning of the show, performing Porter’s “Ridin’ High,” Arnoldy sings “I’m so hap-hap-happy, I’m slap-happy.” Really? If you’re so darn happy, then why aren’t you smiling?

Paul A. Schaefer does lot of smiling as the playboy yachtsman Dexter, but he tends to come off as more smarmy than charming. I never felt as if his Dexter deserved to win Tracy’s hand, though that may be due more to Kopit’s sketchy book than Schaefer’s performance.

Still, Arnoldy, and Schaefer both sing superbly, as does everyone else in this cast. And there are lots of pleasures to be found in this High Society, chiefly from the supporting cast. Alexis Gwynn has poise and panache as Tracy’s pre-teen sister (Gwynn alternates with Cambria Klein in the role), and Dan Schiff hams it up delightfully as Tracy’s randy uncle. Jon Reinhold, as Tracy’s spurned fiancé, makes the most of a (literally) running gag; he also has the show’s sturdiest singing voice. And Jenny Lee Stern makes Liz, a wisecracking and lovelorn photographer, the one character I ended up caring about; she supplies much of the warmth, depth and charisma that the leads are lacking. Whenever she gets to sing – on her own, or in duets with Schiff or the amiable Dibble – the show suddenly snaps to life.

The Walnut has given High Society a gorgeous production – Robert Andrew Kovach’s sets gleam, and Mary Folino’s costumes are perfectly posh. Mary Jane Houdina’s choreography gives the comedy numbers lively stagings, but some of the big tap numbers for the ensemble (especially the opening number) seem rather stiff. The ensemble members, who play members of the Lord family’s household staff, are woefully underused; during several scenes they stand motionless on the edges of the stage, just waiting for a song cue.

Megan Nicole Arnoldy and Ben Dibble. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Megan Nicole Arnoldy and Ben Dibble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

High Society would have been a lot better if it had given its characters room to breathe, and more lovable with less razzle dazzle and a little more heart. Still, the high production values, the fine supporting cast, and the great voices gave me reasons to cheer High Society.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes and an intermission.

High Society plays through October 25, 2015 on the mainstage at the Walnut Street Theatre  – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 982-2787, or purchase them online.

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