Cole Porter provided his own review for High Society in the lyrics to one of its many hit numbers: “What a swellegant, elegant party this is.”
Maria Friedman’s new, intimate production takes on the difficult challenge of staging it in the Old Vic’s temporary in-the-round configuration, and by wrapping the audience around it, catches and enraptures us in its warm embrace – and also has Nathan Wright’s propulsive choreography spinning with centrifugal force on the round plate stage at its centre.
“It’s just the privileged classes enjoying its privileges,” sneers party gatecrasher and hack Mike Connor (played by Jamie Parker in a smooth, suave turn that is further proof of his musical theatre star quality). But before long he, too, is seduced by the atmosphere, and becomes one of three men to have his sights sets on the romantically detached, aristocratic Tracy Lord on the eve of her marriage to George Kittredge while former beau C K Dexter Haven is also privately staking a claim to her.
Its convoluted plot takes a bit of time to set up and catch fire. But when it does, it soars and turns into a giddily intoxicating love fest of gorgeous music and lyrics, thrilling dance and exciting performance. All of this takes flight especially at the top of the second act when Joe Stilgoe and musical director Theo Jamieson engage in an exhilarating piano duel, followed quickly by a thrilling company dance that explodes into full theatrical life.
Meanwhile, the drama starts floating on its own momentum thanks to the effortless sophistication of Cole Porter’s seamless marriage of smart lyrics and memorable tunes, and thanks to the reservoirs of repressed feeling and pain that Kate Fleetwood brings to Tracy as she finally tries to make sense of her romantic life.
Fleetwood looks utterly sensational in designer Tom Pye’s sumptuous costumes, as does the rest of the company in this beautifully designed show, wrapped in the warm glow of Peter Mumford’s lighting. She is also surrounded by some wonderful support: her entire family registers strongly, with Ellie Bamber making a special impression as her younger, very knowing sister Dinah, Barbara Flynn as her mother, Christopher Ravenscroft as her philandering father, and Jeff Rawle as Uncle Willie.
The chorus has also been cast with serious strength, with Ricky Butt a stand-out as a maid and Omari Douglas garnering attention in the big second act Let’s Misbehave by tap-dancing on top of a piano.
Kevin Spacey’s regime at the helm of the Old Vic saw Spacey himself starring as CK Dexter Haven in Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, the original play this musical is based on, during his inaugural season in 2005. Now Spacey’s final piece of programming sees him getting Maria Friedman to stage a farewell party in fine style.