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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HIGH SOCIETY
at the Old Vic

GRAND FINALE
By JOHN NATHAN


The final show in Kevin Spacey's 11-year era as artistic director of the Old Vic is more solid than inspired. But it still represents a good moment to salute a crucial period of the Old Vic's history, which owes its success (if you count up hits and misses) as much to Spacey's determination as his talent. More of that later. First, the show.

The cleverest element of Maria Friedman's revival of Cole Porter's musical lies in what it doesn't do rather than what it does. Which is to say that it thankfully doesn't attempt to follow in the footsteps of Grace Kelly, whose preeminence as heiress and bride-to-be Tracy Lord has, and will always remain, unimpeachable. Rather, this show takes as its lead the actor who starred in The Philadelphia Story, the play and 1940 movie on which the 1956 musical, and Arthur Kopit's book, was based.

To that end, Kate Fleetwood has many of the qualities associated with the first Tracy Lord on film, Katherine Hepburn. These include an air of aloof disdain but also that American upper-class East Coast drawl that speaks of privilege no less loudly than does British posh. Add to this Fleetwood's singing voice (which on occasion is almost Streisandesque in range and tone) and the biggest problem that comes with reviving this musical – that of being overshadowed by some of Hollywood's greatest stars – begins to be addressed. There is an even more effective side-step with the film's roaming Louis Armstrong character, a role represented here by the talented jazz-singing and piano-playing Joe Stilgoe, who serves as a one-man warm-up to the production. Later, in the show proper, he again grabs the attention during a piano duel fought with musical director Theo Jamieson like a keyboard equivalent to the famous drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.

It's thrilling stuff. But if this show successfully avoids reminding its audience of the glorious cast from the past – not just Kelly, but Bing Crosby as her ex-husband and Frank Sinatra as the cynical writer-turned-hack who is eventually seduced by millionaire living standards – it also strains to emulate the languid, classy air of the original. Even when the production reaches the ecstatic state of melody and energy that all musicals aspire to – or should – Friedman's in-the-round production strains every sinew.

Songs from Porter's catalogue, such as "Let's Misbehave," are incorporated into the “elegant, swellagant” wedding celebrations. Pianos rise out of the stage, and, led by Rupert Young (as Dexter, the Crosby character) and an extremely likable Jamie Parker as chippy, charismatic, working-class Mike O'Conner (the Sinatra character), there is the sense here of a show not just pulling out all the stops, but adding yet more stops to be pulled. Still, the show undoubtedly reaches that moment of ecstasy, even if this High Society falls someway short of the triumphant highs reached by the best production of Spacey's tenure.

For my money, they would include the 2008 revival of Mamet's Speed the Plow starring Spacey and Jeff Goldman and directed by Spacey's replacement Matthew Warchus, which is great omen. That production very possibly provided the happiest two hours of my theatre-going life. For that, and for, in all likelihood, saving the Old Vic from fatal decay, and maybe for his Richard III too, I will always be grateful to Spacey.

 


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