What a swell party this is, to quote one of the score of Cole Porter standards that punctuate this breezy, ebullient musical like jewels on a Cartier necklace. The Mill at Sonning’s Christmas show this year is an intoxicating antidote to a bleak UK winter, whisking happily satiated audiences (the seasonal buffet meal included in the ticket price is excellent) away to the rarified air of mid-twentieth century Oyster Bay on Long Island where the sun shines, the champagne flows and the millionaires’ boats glisten on an azure sea. This is escapism at its most elegant.
As tuners go, Arthur Kopit’s stage adaptation of the 1956 Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra film which was in turn a musical remake of Philip Barry’s society comedy The Philadelphia Story, is something of a Frankenstein’s monster. It has double the number of songs of the original movie, plundering Cole Porter’s back catalogue to form a collection of finely crafted, jazzy, swingy musical gems that are a source of unalloyed pleasure despite not always fitting seamlessly into this tale of the messy romantic machinations of the rich and clueless in an opulent seaside setting. While “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”, the tartly delightful duet for the undercover journalists sent to observe the madness of the privileged, or the wistful romantic ballad “I Love You, Samantha”, spring organically from the action because they were part of the film score, some of the other numbers, though equally gorgeous, comment on, or feel adjunct to, the story and characters.
Rather than attempting to gloss over this, director Joe Pitcher and his choreographer Jaye Elster go in the opposite direction, choosing instead to present many of the songs outside the action: there’s a change in Nic Farman and Hector Murray’s nicely evocative lighting and suddenly, for the duration of a number, the characters are in an upscale night club act, crooning into vintage mics. It’s an effective solution, sending a little thrill of showbiz electricity through a play that, for all its wit and sparkle, runs the risk of looking out of touch to the point of tone deafness in these straitened times.
Victoria Serra is utter perfection as heiress Tracy Lord, romantically torn between raffish ex-husband Dexter (an ardent, seductively voiced Matt Blakler) and a well meaning but controlling new fiancé (Will Richardson, funny and appropriately idiotic), capturing a brittle melancholy beneath the polished diamond exterior. Equally flawless is Heather Jackson as her not-as-straight-laced-as-she-looks mother, trying desperately to conceal her re-attachment to Tracy’s disgraced father (Russell Wilcox) from her opinionated daughter.
As tabloid reporter Mike Connor, Matthew Jeans seems at times to be almost channelling the role’s screen progenitor, Sinatra, although his athletic smooth moves and boyish charm transcend mere impersonation. There’s a touch of Lucille Ball’s comic lunacy, and the potency of a dry martini, about Laura Tyrer’s tough but tender portrayal of his romantically befuddled sidekick Liz. Kurt Kansley is a barrel of non-PC fun as a permanently plastered uncle and there’s an entrancing stage debut from Katlo as Tracy’s mouthy younger sister who appears to have a much clearer view of the erotic and emotional entanglements than the majority of the adults.
Director Pitcher has a remarkable knack for putting a fresh, inventive spin on a well known piece, while staying true to the spirit of the original, and he’s abetted here by a superb team. Elster’s dances are exhilaratingly athletic but feel period-appropriate, and the production values, from Jason Denvir’s airy, expensive-looking set to Natalie Titchener’s divine costumes and Jerome Van Den Berghe’s fine musical arrangements, are spiffing. The wigs department deserves a special mention: even at close quarters, their ambitious creations here look totally convincing. Tom Noyes is an unusually charismatic and present musical director, frequently at the centre of the big numbers, such as the blissful mini-Cole Porter revue that kicks off the second half.
There are reservations: the dialogue scenes don’t always snap and fizz as much as they should, the milieu and attitudes of the Barry original have dated badly, and I’m not sure a non-musical version of The Philadelphia Story would even play particularly well now. Luckily, High Society has an abundance of musical charm to offset the creaky nature of some of the script. The American accents throughout are excellent.
For the second time this year (the first being their triumphant, and now award-winning, Gypsy back in the summer, also helmed by Pitcher), the Mill at Sonning has produced a beloved musical redux that succeeds in feeling bracingly new-minted for a first time audience but hits all the magical notes that senior theatregoers will expect. As a property, High Society isn’t in the same league as that Broadway legend, but it’s still an enchanting entertainment, full of lovely songs and some laughter. A “swellegant, elegant” treat.