Cole Porter’s High Society (on now at the Arts Club’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage) offers a 1938 peek inside the world of a well to do family in America’s Eastern seaboard town of Newport. Socialite Tracy Lord (Jennifer Lines) is about to be wed for the second time.
Right from the start though, Tracy’s ex, C.K. Dexter-Haven (brilliantly performed by Todd Talbot), doesn’t approve of boring, humourless George Kittredge (Steve Maddock), the fellow that Tracy’s about to marry.
Meanwhile, would-be novelist/undercover tabloid reporter Mike Connor (Daniel Arnold) and his lady friend photographer Liz Imbrie (Lauren Bowler) arrive on the scene hoping to expose her father Seth Lord (Sean Allan) for Spy Magazine. Father’s led a questionable past and the duo are out digging for clues in the guise of covering the wedding.
Tracy’s mom (Vancouver favourite Nicola Lipman, recently seen in Electric Company’s All the Way Home) and sister Dinah (Bridget Esler) are at first happy to welcome a safe businessman like George into their family. They love to poke fun at the non-committal, sometimes immature Dexter (“I’m trying to grow up and it’s damn hard”).
As the play progresses (particularly noticeable halfway through the first act), the cast starts to strengthen as an ensemble. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was a highlight for me and a good example of this. “I Love Paris” is a particularly sweet number that follows, with Tracy on accordion and Dinah dressed as a ballerina, their voices harmonizing well together.
The duo perform for the reporter and photographer, trying to keep them from further questioning their father’s affairs by putting on an amusing show complete with fake French accents. And although Liz and Mike appear to be a couple, Mike and Tracy hit it off almost immediately.
Act one closes with a split stage: Dexter and Tracy reminisce on their past love. It’s beautifully sung with a gorgeous atmosphere heightened by the fog rolling in, providing an emotional close to the first act.
The second act opens with the curtains lifted to reveal an upstairs balcony and live band, complete with a chandelier and wall lighting. “Well, Did You Evah!” allows the playful house staff to show off their vocal talent in a nicely choreographed tune (props to choreographer Valerie Easton). Dexter is able to show off a few moves of his own in the solo “Just One of Those Things.”
It’s become apparent to everyone but Tracy that she and George are mismatched. While singing “It’s Alright With Me“, it slowly starts to dawn on her that perhaps her chosen fiancée is not the one. Towards the end, Dexter proclaims his love for her as he sings “I Love You, Samantha“. All three men in her life feel something for her, each with a unique way of expressing it.
The set (designed by Alison Green) contains a lot of muted green and blues, containing both a living room (centre stage) as well as the garden. The stage rotates at various points of the play to reveal a private garden in a few scenes, and the living room in others. The sets are nicely decorated to invoke the era and well-lit by lighting designer Marsha Sibthorpe.
Though I enjoyed the entire cast, standout roles for me are Dexter and Uncle Willie (born and bred in Vancouver’s Norman Browning). High Society is a spirited, fun, and loving look at love and living life to the fullest with no regrets.
High Society is based not only on the highly successful 1956 film with Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Bing Crosby, but also on the 1939 play that inspired it, The Philadelphia Story. The latter was made into an Academy Award–winning film of the same name in 1940 and boasted the all-star cast of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. Cole Porter’s music is filled with uplifting, jazzy, and often complex compositions.
Porter’s musicals have been revisited on Broadway and around the world on countless occasions. According to the Arts Club Theatre’s Artistic Managing Director Bill Millerd (and High Society’s director), “Porter writes about subjects we can all relate to, which make his songs timeless.”
High Society closes the theatre company’s 48th season and continues at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville Street) through June 24. Visit the website for shows and ticket information.
Photos courtesy of Tim Matheson.