Even with Ragtime and The Lion King opening on Broadway this season, there is still a feeling that musicals aren't what they used to be. This stage version of one of the classic movie musicals might well be a plot to dispel that feeling by making even Cole Porter look bad.
Porter wrote nine songs for the 1956 movie "High Society." It was based on Philip Barry's play "The Philadelphia Story," which itself was filmed with Katharine Hepburn in the main role.
To make a stage musical, the producers added other Porter songs and asked the accomplished Susan Birkenhead ("Triumph of Love," "Jelly's Last Jam") to change the lyrics of some of the familiar ones.
Birkenhead has such wit and style that she is not out of place in Porter's company. The same can be said for Lar Lubovitch's choreography but, alas, for little else in the show.
Arthur Kopit's book follows the basic plot of the play. On a weekend in 1938, wealthy Tracy Lord is set to remarry. Her ex-husband and two journalists from a scandal sheet (nicely played by Stephen Bogardus and Randy Graff) arrive. Between them, they help her to see where her heart really lies.
What neither Kopit nor anyone else in the production has managed to do, though, is to find a convincing way of working Porter's songs back into the play.
There are two problems. One is that even Cole Porter wrote mediocre songs, a fact that the producers seem determined to underline by including best-forgotten numbers like "She's Got That Thing," "He's a Right Guy," "Say It With Gin" and "Samantha."
In theory, though, the wicked sophistication of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", "Let's Misbehave," "Just One of Those Things," "Well, Did You Evah?" and the pure sentiment of "True Love" ought to be enough to keep everything afloat.
Instead, these wonderful numbers are the icebergs on which the show founders. For instead of the drama being built around them, they are adapted to the needs of the plot. It's a bit like seeing an old dog eating scraps off the family silver.
Take, for example, "Just One of Those Things." It is perhaps the most elegant brushoff of all time. The pleasure of the song is that it is a smooth, sexy way of saying "Thanks a lot, baby. See you around sometime."
Yet, here, astonishingly, it is used as a song of yearning. It is sung by Daniel McDonald playing Tracy's first husband who, on the eve of her second marriage, pines for their lost love. Yet however hard he tries, a song with the chorus "it was great fun, but it was just one of those things" can't be made to say, "Come back to me, my darling."
Almost as bad is the use of that great anthem of boozy dishevelment "Well, Did You Evah?" The very structure of the song is a dialogue between drunk and drunker. Here, though, it's made into a jaunty chorus sung by Tracy, her womanizing uncle, the household staff and one of the journalists. It looks like an abject admission that the show can't compete with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in the movie and isn't going to try.
Worst of all, though, the songs as a whole manage to make a nonsense of the central character Tracy. The whole point of the story is that she is, as we constantly hear, "like some marvelous, distant goddess" who has to get off her high horse. Hepburn and Grace Kelly, in very different ways, played her as a severe society lady.
But, with the exception of Kelly's few lines of "True Love," they didn't have to sing. Melissa Errico does. She also has to dance, and to act the fool in a sequence apparently contrived for the sole purpose of getting "I Love Paris" into the action.
But she can't be both a stuck-up prig and an all-singing, all-dancing good-time girl. It is hardly surprising that Errico, for all her charm, struggles to make any sense of the role. Nor is it surprising that without a coherent central character, it is impossible to sustain interest in the story.
In the end, the contrast between the movie's sophistication and the show's awkwardness is so total that it brings to mind one of the Cole Porter songs that isn't included "Night and Day."
Ok, think of some big Hollywood musicals that later were transmogrified into equally big Broadway hits.
"Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"? "Meet Me in St. Louis"? "Singin' in the Rain"? "State Fair"? Hardly. "Gigi"? Almost. "42nd Street"? Yes, just about.
It ain't an easy transition, kids. The silver screen rarely translates to the Great White Way. It is one thing to make a movie out of a stage musical; there is a possibility of expansion there. It is another thing to reduce a movie, with all its various kinds of scope, into a stage show.
Which is precisely why the above list is so meager - and the dutifully plodding stage version of Cole Porter's "High Society," which opened at the St. James Theater last night, is not likely to enlarge it.
"High Society" is an obvious temptation for those in search of new, or newish, material for musical theater. It is a show based on one of America's most successful comedies, Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story," and with marvelous music and dazzling lyrics by Cole Porter, who wouldn't want to stage it?
Set in some never-never time of 1938, in the fabled land of the privileged rich, it concerns the thawing of the ice maiden Tracy Lord (Melissa Errico). She was once married to the charming playboy Dexter (Daniel McDonald), and is now preparing to marry a self-made millionaire, George (Marc Kudisch). But plans are effectively confused by her family and two wretches from a scandal sheet, reporter Mike (Stephen Bogardus) and his sidekick photographer, Liz (Randy Graff).
The initial difficulty is surely the casting, for the stage version inevitably lacks Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm, Louis Armstrong and - I guess - Katharine Hepburn, for perhaps Grace Kelly is replaceable. See for yourself; you can pick up the 1956 original at your friendly neighborhood video store.
The next difficulty is the heroine's role. Because Kelly was no singer, she was called upon to warble only a bit of the ballad duet "True Love." So, music must be found. And a new book, based on John and Barry Patrick's screenplay, must be written.
It would be easier to start from scratch - but then you wouldn't have Cole Porter. So the producers here have obtained a quite serviceable new book from Arthur Kopit, which, for some reason, places an amplified emphasis on the slightly disreputable Uncle Willie (John McMartin).
And - and this is the biggest problem - in order to provide Tracy with songs, they have tinkered mightily with the score.
Now, scores in Porter's time never were sacrosanct. For example, the movie's most celebrated duet for Crosby and Sinatra, "Well, Did You Evah?" - botched in this production - was, in fairness, originally "stolen" from an earlier Porter musical, "DuBarry Was a Lady."
But for this show, most of the borrowings seem inappropriate to character, plot or both. Tracy, for example, seems more flighty than frigid, even opening up with "Ridin' High."
The result? The whole show lacks cohesion.
The staging is adequate enough, and Loy Arcenas' scenery proves rather chic and very clever.
But the performances are mostly oddly disappointing, with the lovely Errico, everyone's fair lady, curiously miscast. For one thing, she seems too warm to have to melt. Graff and Bogardus leave little impression, while McMartin (busily stealing a show not very closely guarded) probably leaves too much.
The only unqualified successes are Anna Kendrick, who makes the odious kid sister actually bearable, and - best of all - McDonald, who, as Tracy's once and future beau, has all the charm the rest of the show sadly lacks.
All in all, this is a "High Society" I would snub. You'll be better off at that video store.
Champagne, presumably of a most expensive vintage, flows freely in ''High Society,'' the musical that opened last night at the St. James Theater. But the characters consuming it in this latest variation on ''The Philadelphia Story,'' Philip Barry's 1939 comedy about life among the rich and charming, might as well be sophomores at a beer blast.
Even before one cork is popped in this rudderless production -- an amalgam of Barry's play and the 1956 movie musical adaptation with a score by Cole Porter, also called ''High Society'' -- its patrician characters appear to have had a transfusion, removing all traces of anemic blue blood from their veins. They're a rowdy, fun-loving and slightly vulgar lot, given to music hall accordion performances, imitations of exotic dancers and grade school jokes about the I.Q. level of a man who is not of their class.
Yes, spirits are definitely high in ''High Society,'' which stars a sadly misused Melissa Errico, but they also feel forced and even desperate. The show, first seen in a tepidly received version in San Francisco, has since undergone drastic retailoring. And it ominously shed its director and choreographer of record, Christopher Renshaw and Lar Lubovitch, during New York rehearsals, with Des McAnuff and Wayne Cilento stepping in to make last-minute revisions.
Perhaps that accounts for the feverish, at-sea quality that seems to possess the show's team of talented, proven performers. The production's guiding rule appears to be to do whatever is necessary to land a joke or to sell a song. But since the text is mostly by Barry (here reworked by Arthur Kopit), and the songs by Cole Porter (with additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead), both masters of urbane wit, this gung-ho approach amounts to sabotage. Numbers that should bubble with dry effervescence are more likely to come across as a thick ferment of suds.
''High Society'' chronicles the comeuppance of Tracy Lord, a young and beautiful American aristocrat of glacial comportment and little tolerance for human frailty. In the course of preparing for her wedding to a man for whom she is ill suited, she is pulled from her pedestal, a process that lets her learn to bend and acquire a human heart. The role in ''The Philadelphia Story'' was created expressly by Barry for Katharine Hepburn, who turned it into a personal triumph both onstage and in the 1940 film, which also starred Cary Grant and James Stewart and which resuscitated Ms. Hepburn's flagging box office fortunes.
Because of the abiding popularity of the movie, a high point of MGM-style gloss and sophistication, Ms. Hepburn has owned the role of Tracy even more dauntingly than Marlon Brando owns the part of Stanley Kowalski. Her successors have always been eclipsed by her shadow. That includes Grace Kelly, Hollywood's midcentury emblem of ice-blond elegance, who brought a kittenish vulnerability to the movie ''High Society'' that sapped Tracy of much of her essential strength.
Tracy, after all, is described as a woman who will always be perceived as a chaste goddess, no matter what her romantic pursuits may be. While Ms. Errico doesn't remotely resemble Ms. Hepburn, she already has the role of goddess on her resume. In the title role of the Encores concert version of ''One Touch of Venus'' two years ago, she blissfully tempered an aura of lofty divinity with a blithe sensuality and emerged overnight as a musical star to reckon with.
Would that Ms. Errico had been able to inject her current performance with some of that Olympian hauteur. She looks as heavenly as ever, especially in the slim satin dress by Jane Greenwood she wears in the show's big party scene, and her limpid soprano still shimmers appealingly. Yet from the moment she steps onto the stage, aggressively singing the interpolated Porter standard ''Ridin' High,'' nothing seems to come naturally to her.
Her affected upper-crust accent is as plummy as damson preserves, and she works far too hard at projecting Tracy's mischievous, trouble-making side. There's nothing cool or judgmental about this lusty party girl. And while the plot turns on her character's transformation through alcohol at a ball on the eve of her wedding, there's not much difference here between Tracy drunk and Tracy sober. The fall from the pedestal is no great distance.
The whole production brims with similar sacrifices in the cause of what appears to be liveliness. The drawing of those annoyingly cute, plump cats in evening clothes used in the ad campaign for ''High Society'' signals the show's tone. There's a cartoon quality to Loy Arcenas's ingeniously mobile sets, meant to evoke the moneyed environs of Oyster Bay in 1938; Ms. Greenwood's costumes are colored from an atypically lurid palette. And the score, which shoehorns in an assortment of songs from other Porter musicals among those he wrote for ''High Society,'' can feel relentlessly peppy.
Mr. Kopit has said he wanted to conjure some of the moonlit romantic confusion of ''A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' and the show's central love story has a correspondingly frenzied feel but no persuasive chemistry. There are three men vying for Tracy's hand: her priggish fiance, George Kittredge (Marc Kudisch), a self-made businessman from the working classes; her debonair ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Daniel McDonald), and Mike Connor (Stephen Bogardus), the magazine reporter who arrives to cover Tracy's wedding with a chip on his shoulder.
All three are brazenly miscast, especially Mr. McDonald, who brings an antic, juvenile giddiness to the role played with such sly savoir-faire by Cary Grant. He's a handsome fellow, right out of an Arrow shirt ad, and he has an appealing voice. But when he sings ''Just One of Those Things'' to a framed photograph of Tracy, he doesn't seem to be listening to the lyrics. Mr. Bogardus fares better with a silvery rendition of ''You're Sensational,'' the evening's musical high point.
While Lisa Banes and Daniel Gerroll simply seem lost as Tracy's mother and father, John McMartin has a fine, infectiously loose time as the lecherous, alcoholic Uncle Willie. Randy Graff brings a winning Depression-era wryness to the role of Liz Imbrie, a wisecracking photographer. And Anna Kendrick, in a part that could be unbearable, is actually terrific as Tracy's obnoxiously precocious kid sister.
Sharp, shrewd and unfailingly self-possessed, Ms. Kendrick would probably walk away with the show, were it not for the ensemble of singing and dancing household servants, who provide a running choral commentary on the evening's action. The ways in which they're used to reflect the toll taken by the events of the plot is by far the most inventive and charming element of the production.
With their drolly correct demeanor, they also consistently outclass their employers. This might work in P. G. Wodehouse's world, but it scarcely seems appropriate to that of Philip Barry.
The bubbly flows freely in the "new" Cole Porter musical "High Society" -- in fact we're all but hit over the head with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot -- but the show itself is sadly flat. The last musical entry in the Broadway season is a polished, high-styled production stuffed with Porter nuggets of various vintages, but it's light on romance, sparkle and personality -- the things that fairly blazed off the screen in the celebrated 1940 film "The Philadelphia Story," adapted from the Philip Barry play that's also the original source for this stage version.
The program credits Barry's play, which revived Katharine Hepburn's stalled movie career when she duplicated her stage success on film, as well as the somewhat less scintillating 1956 movie musical with Grace Kelly, from which the new show borrows a title and much of its Porter score. Melissa Errico is the current Tracy Lord, an Oyster Bay heiress on the eve of a second marriage when her dancing partner from the first one shows up to spoil her plans.
Errico is breathtakingly beautiful here. In Jane Greenwood's lovely dresses and wide-legged pants, her radiant fair skin set off against dark curls, she does indeed recall those great screen goddesses that are no more. But her acting, as with many another goddess, is breathtakingly bland. Errico's idea of upper-crust elegance seems to be linked to enunciation: She delivers her dialogue as if she's giving elocution lessons at a finishing school. And her comic instincts tend toward the obvious, while Barry's generally joke-free play relied on nuanced acting for its humor to bloom.
(Arthur Kopit, who supplied this efficient adaptation, seems to have tried to make up for a lack of comic chemistry among the show's principals by accenting the wisecracks of Tracy's little sister Dinah, an act of desperation whose sole beneficiary is Anna Kendrick, the young actress who milks them with admirable gusto.)
Comparisons to Hepburn are unfair, but unavoidable, so snugly did the role of Tracy fit Hepburn's unique blend of casual regality and essential earthiness. Hepburn and her peerless co-stars James Stewart and Cary Grant effortlessly communicated both the hard-edged surfaces of these sophisticates and the anxious, yearning souls beneath the brittle exteriors. Only when she is singing -- she is in heavenly voice -- does Errico give us a glimpse of Tracy's soul, and she is not singing often enough.
As C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy's first husband and putative soul mate, Daniel McDonald is handsome, stiff and charmless. To be fair, Kopit doesn't give him much help; for characterization, he's been given an ascot to wear, and that's about it. In general, the superabundance of songs seems to have put a squeeze on time for character and plot development.
McDonald does sing pleasantly, but his earnest delivery of "Just One of Those Things" is a lesson in how not to handle a Cole Porter song. Vet musical director Paul Gemignani is to blame for this and a similar misstep, when Errico has to croon, most unhappily, a lyric about singing a song "in the wrong style" while doing just that.
By contrast, for a lesson in Porter perfection, there's the delightful John McMartin, whose performance as the chronically soused Uncle Willie is chief among "High Society's" too incidental pleasures. Like Fred Astaire, Stewart and others, McMartin proves with his insouciant, offhand delivery of "I'm Getting Myself Ready for You" and "Say It With Gin" that it's not vocal prowess but elan that Porter tunes require.
And McMartin almost alone brings to the show a gentle air of melancholy that gives this souffle some humanity: Strangely, the most tender moment in this romantic comedy is shared between Uncle Willie and Dexter over a bottle of gin, the bane of Dexter and Tracy's marriage and the boon that gets Willie through life.
The show's other charms include the tart Randy Graff as Liz Imbrie, scandal sheet photographer and prey of Uncle Willie. Her solo, "He's a Right Guy," is delivered with torchy simplicity. Stephen Bogardus is fine as her cohort and secret love, Mike Connor, although his role has almost been reduced to a cameo here.
Loy Arcenas' sets offer some needed enchantment, too, with their soothing whites and sky blues. But under Arcenas' chic deco proscenium, "High Society" too often fails to fizz. Des McAnuff added his input to director Christopher Renshaw's efforts, but no magic has been worked. The mysterious alchemy that makes a musical soar is absent here. As the song says, it's just one of those things.