Theater review, 'High Society' at Theatre at the Center

TheaterEntertainmentMusical TheaterBroadway TheaterPhilip BarryCole PorterPhiladelphia (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Judging by some comments, a portion of the audience for the local premiere of "High Society" at the Theatre at the Center on Friday night thought they were watching one of those classic Broadway musicals from the 1940s.

The confusion is easy to understand. Not only is it based in part on Philip Barry's 1939 play "The Philadelphia Story" (adapted as the 1956 movie "High Society"), but the score of this show features such Cole Porter standards as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," "It's All Right With Me" and "I Love Paris."

And with a screwball romantic plot about a first husband who won't go away and a wealthy heroine who must learn to get in touch with her vulnerability, "High Society" feels like a period confection.

In actuality, this version is all of three years old.

With the help of book writer Arthur Kopit, a "new" Porter musical was fashioned from the movie and, to a lesser extent, the original play. And since the cinematic score was too thin to sustain a full Broadway show and, it was felt, didn't offer enough recognizable tunes to please Porter fans, other standards were stuck into this show.

The result is a pleasant enough musical, albeit one that suffers from its hybrid history. What is lacking is anything that passes for sophisticated repartee.

Fans of the source play expecting sardonic wit and sparkling urbanity will find the musical version strangely flat and uninspiring. Instead, one has to concentrate on enjoying the numbers and amusing complications in plot as Ms. Lord tries to decide who to join at the alter, again.

Under artistic director Michael Weber, Theatre at the Center has shown it can compete with Chicago's musical houses (and at lower ticket prices). Weber's latest effort is an impressively full-blown affair, replete with a seven-piece orchestra and a cast that includes such lively comedic professionals as James Harms, Paul Slade Smith and McKinley Carter.

With an expansive set from Angela Weber Miller and a strong group of ensemble players (including the youthful but terrific Jacey Powers), it's generally a quality production.

The talented Tammy Mader always sings superbly but does not seem at her best in the lead role of Tracy. She's too introspective and broadly focused when she should be concentrating on connecting with the audience in the direct, no-nonsense fashion demanded by her character.

As her first husband, Steve Dunne looks rather more assured.

Mader will improve as she relaxes. And while the narrative limitation of the material will remain, such well-sung ditties as "Once Upon a Time" and the haunting "True Love" are ample compensation.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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