After a stream of five-star reviews for Merrily we Roll Along in 2012, there was clearly no pressure for Maria Friedman to redeem that success…none whatsoever. However, she does so gloriously with her new production of High Society at the Old Vic, based on the 1956 film. Friedman’s musical is an open invitation for us to a ‘swellegant’ party and to experience the classic cinematic flair that the film has.
Entering the in-the-round space and hearing Joe Stilgoe seamlessly do a mashup of Ravel’s Bolero and The Jungle Book on the piano was a strong way of introducing us to the style that develops— a comedy, but with class…darling. Stilgoe is undoubtedly one of the best actor-musicians currently on stage, in terms of his virtuosic jazz piano skills alongside his classy ‘crooner’ like voice. Kate Fleetwood is a natural standout as Tracy Lord, arguably the most interesting character in the production — capturing both her drunken playfulness and lonesome fragility marvellously, particularly in ‘Once Upon a Time’. Her right hand man, Rupert Young as C. K. Dexter Haven, however, lacks any of these emotional extremes. Witty, he may be, but his simple voice cannot compete at the same level as some of the bigger ‘show-stopping’ voices in the show such as Fleetwood’s or Jamie Parker’s.
The opening act tends to drag with too much wishy-washy dialogue relating to minor characters, which can be scrapped. High Society takes time to gain momentum, but once Act Two begins and we finally arrive at the ball, the production is victorious. Nathan M. Wright’s large-scale slick choreography in ‘Let’s Misbehave’ lifts the show to a new euphoric level. The party atmosphere truly comes alive with tap dancers on top of pianos and one too many backflips. There were so many skirts being flipped around that I thought it was West Side Story’s America for a moment.
Friedman manages to create a colourful production, despite the lack of backdrop in-the-round. There’s a difference if an ensemble person places an object from one place to another without any character, and doing it Friedman’s way with a twirl and a wink to another cast member. Cheesy? Probably. But it’s those little touches of elegance in the transitions between scenes that what turns Friedman’s direction into something more cinematic. The song ‘True Love,’ in particular, with flying yachts around the theatre and a glistening animated sea on stage justifies this.
High Society takes time to swing in the same way as Theo Jamieson’s stellar orchestra does. Once it hits the ground running, however, it soars. It isn’t controversial or game-changing by any means. But High Society is certainly a top choice for a classy summer musical. Friedman triumphs once again…
Reviewed by Jack Grey
High Society is playing at the Old Vic Theatre until 22 August 2015. For more information and to book tickets click here