Thursday, 17 May 2012

Song-&-dance good as it gets in High Society

Zoom Spot : Huzzah’s to High Society in spades. The exuberance and crispness and outright fun the performers have in this old-style musical comedy will excite even the most dour sourpuss in your household. The Arts Club’s performance outshines in every way the miscast and largely insipid 1956 movie starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Outshines it by uncountable lumens. And to this viewer the key is not the Cole Porter music that was adapted to the original and unlikely script of The Philadelphia Story. The key is Director Bill Millerd’s casting, first and foremost, followed quick-step by Valerie Easton’s choreography of the actors individually and collectively. Not to mention an extremely clever set by Alison Green, great mood lighting by veteran Marsha Sibthorpe, a perfect-pitched jazz orchestra led by Ken Cormier, and the period-piece costumes, particularly for the servants, designed by Phillip Clarkson. Don’t be cheap -- shell out the ducats to see all of this in perfect concert and harmony in Act II’s song-&-dance routine Let’s Misbehave if for no other reason.
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Over dinner before the show I wrote the following as a proposed Apologia for what I thought I was about to see on the Stanley Theatre stage in ACT’s version of High Society :

In the current socioeconomic mileau, High Society could only be a Tea Party phenomenon. Its sole focus is on the well-heeled 1% with not even a momentary glance back at the Occupy 99% cadre.  Doubtless the decision to mount HS was made probably 8-10 months prior to the Occupy movement that catapulted to the world stage in September, 2011. Thus what follows is aimed at prospective viewers in 2012 who will “suspend disbelief” and enjoy witnessing the trials and tribulations of the 1% crowd in Newport, Rhode Island, USA circa 1938.

On the day Ontario police watchdog Gerry McNeilly condemned the actions of Toronto police at the G20 summit two years ago, my proposed Apologia above didn’t strike me as in the least cynical.  Just existentially contextual.

Bill Millerd and crew “forced” me to scrap that approach. Watching the production May 16, I was able, like Leonard Cohen, to “put a cap on my concussion and dance”.  To let a silly, goofy plot be rescued by excellent theatre antics and skills.  As I watched I was put to mind of the wonderful choreography from the 1950’s movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that was tight beyond measure.

The storyline of High Society is borderline offensive to anyone with a wit of social conscience. It’s sexist, ageist, anti-intellectual, champions the rich and floats in what the script identifies as “an alchemy of alcohol”.  Not easy to get more politically incorrect than all of that in 2012. 

The chief character is one Tracy Samantha Lord, who around age 30 is about to marry a second time after a first failed practice marriage with her childhood sweetheart Dexter Haven, a yacht designer.  The play is set mostly on the eve of her 2nd bout of nuptials, this time to bourgeois striver George Kittredge, a mining CEO whose umbra is class neurosis. He represents new money, which is bred of “youth and skill”. Old money is “age and treachery”. And we all know who wins those showdowns.

On this evening Tracy entertains a series of lusty and marital thoughts about not only her fiancée, boring George, but also of her ex- even as she flirts vigorously with a writer from a gossip-rag like the The Enquirer. His party invite was handed out as a bribe to kill a pending expose about Tracy’s dad who's been canoodling with a young dancer in New York.  In 2012 only Tea Partyers care about the peccadilloes of the social elite. Those “bright but synthetic qualities” New York Times critic Bosley Crowther derided back in ’56. Plastic values even in post-war 50's boom times, nevermind nearly 60 years later...

As Tracy, Jennifer Lines executes a near flawless rendition of this princess-ditz. Her dazzling smile and more-than-just-capable singing voice put Grace Kelly’s feeble shrill efforts to shame (though Grace pretty well managed that mediocrity on her own without any need for comparison to prove the point). Tracy’s younger sister Dinah played by Bridget Esler almost upstages every scene she’s in – that just-pre-teen smart-ass who zaps zinger lines with professional cadence.  Norman Browning as dipsomaniac and lecherous Uncle Willie pulls down regular slugs of gin and weavy dances with caricature accuracy.

Daniel Arnold is perhaps a bit teenybopper in his swooning over Tracy. He claims a bolshy soul but then drools at her every glance. Todd Talbot as Dexter grows into the part as the play rolls on, his bedroom choreography during Just One of Those Things as good as Ted Danson doing those endless pirouettes in the flik Body Heat a few decades back. 

Still, it is the servant group of Kayla Dunbar, Brandyn Eddy, Timothy Gledhill, Seana-Lee Wood and Melissa Young whose choreography and dance-stagehand routines ratchet this play up from not just good, but great great fun.  

As Zoom Spot says : “Don’t be cheap -- shell out the ducats to see all of this in perfect concert and harmony in Act II’s song-&-dance routine Let’s Misbehave if for no other reason.”



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