ArtsATL > Theater > Review: Stage Door Players aim high with Cole Porter’s classic, classy “High Society”

Review: Stage Door Players aim high with Cole Porter’s classic, classy “High Society”

Jeremy Wood and Galen Crawley in "High Society."

“High Society,” at Stage Door Players through August 5, is a musical play based on a musical movie based on a non-musical movie based on a non-musical play. Got it?

“High Society” is, of course, a classic 1956 film starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. But the story itself was lifted from the original hit play and 1940 film “The Philadelphia Story,” in which Katharine Hepburn played the definitive role of socialite Tracy Lord (the part was written for her). The “High Society” movie was rehashed into a Broadway musical in 1998. (There’ll be a quiz on all this later.)

The show is obviously a bit of a nostalgic throwback, another example of the recent Broadway craze for recycling and rehashing. It’s meant to be done up in grand style, with a full orchestra and enormous sets and so on. It’s a pleasant enough idea for a show, if not the most wildly original or awe-inspiring, and it was a moderate hit in 1998, though the critics generally were not happy (are they evah?). The transition to a small theater with a modest budget is nicely managed, though it does carry some problems.

“High Society” is crammed to the gills with songs. The movie had nine Porter songs, perhaps most famously “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Well, Did You Evah?,” and the new stage version cranks that up to about 20, not including reprises and overtures. “Well, Did You Evah?” gets about 30 reprises — I think every character in the show takes a turn at belting out a verse — but for some reason the movie’s snazzy theme song, “High Society Calypso” (sung in the film by Louis Armstrong), never really makes a full appearance, though the chorus does a sort of shortened, buttoned-up version of it.

Otherwise, the stage show basically lifts all the songs from the movie while injecting a lot of famous other ones from Porter’s career in the jukebox style. This works with varying degrees of success. Galen Crawley as Tracy does a nice job in bringing a sort of haunting, wistful interiority to “It’s All Right With Me” at a troubled moment alone on the stage, but the script has her singing the lovely “I Love Paris” as a practical joke, hamming it up for a pair of snooping reporters. “Let’s Misbehave” and “You’ve Got That Thing” and other Porter classics are grafted on with surgical precision, but somehow they still stand out as not native to the action.

It’s much to the theater’s credit that live music is used throughout; live music of any kind is always preferable to recorded music. But the small music section — two keyboards, woodwinds and percussion — isn’t really able to bring a lot of texture and variety to the numbers, and the songs end up sounding too much the same. It wouldn’t be a problem in a show with fewer numbers, but here it stands out.

The plots of old musicals can easily seem a bit silly and dated, and this one, based as it is on a classic movie that still holds up, carries the promise that it might be a little less so. But silly and dated is its home territory. The singing maids and tap-dancing butlers are charming, but their inclusion should serve as a warning to anyone who doesn’t like that style of old musical. Caitlin Smith is a standout as Liz, the practical, sassy Girl Friday, though the script doesn’t give her much to do other than resist the advances of dirty old man Uncle Willie (Robert Wayne).

In spite of the problems, the talented cast of Stage Door Players’ “High Society” does, in the end, manage to bring across a winning atmosphere of swank parties, champagne on ice and tuxedos at dinner. And they handle the sophisticated, slightly naughty Cole Porter songs admirably. It’s not the perfect musical in the perfect setting, but it’s still a charming show … so it’s all right with me.

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