High Society

Presented by Diablo Light Opera Company at Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, through June 16

The year is 1938 and the heroine is Tracy Lord, a beautiful and high-spirited socialite whose wealthy family is preparing for her second marriage. This time around, she’s engaged to self-made dullard George Kittredge. The groom-to-be compares unfavorably to Tracy’s first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, a dapper, devil-may-care sort who lost Tracy during his battle with the bottle and who still lives in the neighborhood.

Tracy’s life is further complicated by her parents, whose marriage is teetering after her father’s fling with an exotic dancer. Tracy’s mother Margaret still loves him, but Tracy resolutely refuses to let her father back into her life for his failure to meet her strict standards. There are also Tracy’s delightful and precocious younger sister Dinah and bibulous Uncle Willie, a harmless chap whose purpose in life seems to be looking for good times. Added to the mix are a pair of prowling reporters named Mike and Liz masquerading as guests. Of course, it’s a patrician setting, so an army of maids and butlers is on hand to contribute to the musical merriment and move sets between the scenes.

The script, based on MGM’s 1940 film Philadelphia Story starring Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn, calls for a coldly magnificent Tracy Lord–you know, a Yankee ice queen. But in DLOC’s version, what we get is a Rockette: Wendy Wilcox’s Tracy is faintly Town & Country but smacks more of Disney. Audiences in 1940 weren’t thrilled with the mannered aloofness that characterized the heroine of Bringing Up Baby, though, so perhaps Wilcox’s lack of resemblance to Hepburn isn’t such a bad thing. It’s just that her bubbliness misses both the layered vulnerability and imperiousness that properly defines an “ice goddess” before she melts toward the inevitably happy ending.

What recommends a revival of this show, first done in 1956, is the music of Cole Porter, which includes both movie tunes and additions from other Porter musicals. This patchwork method of combining songs from several productions into one works surprisingly smoothly, with one exception: when the skirt-chasing ways of Uncle Willie (Alan Cameron) result in a romantic duet with resistant reporter Liz (Dana Lewenthal)–“I’m Getting Myself Ready for You”–the starry-eyed sentiment seems to arrive out of nowhere and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

Another of the romantic songs, “True Love,” perhaps furthers the plot a little too smoothly. Whereas Philadelphia Story‘s plot was a delightfully unpredictable mess, here the lowered lights, swelling music, and intimate pairing of Tracy and Dexter all but give away the ending on the spot.

Other musical numbers give the show spunk and show off the performers’ versatility. In the opening number, “High Society,” we are treated to the Charleston. “Let’s Misbehave” features tap dance, and, best of all, the entirety of “She’s Got That Thing” is gleefully devoted to Papa Seth Lord’s exotic dancer, tailfeathers and all, though she’s not even present among the cast of characters.

But the choreography, by Don Wilson and David Smidebush, leaves much to be desired during Tracy’s solo “It’s All Right with Me,” when a song that should be the show’s poignant turning point comes off as somewhat glib. Tracy’s bittersweet resignation, necessarily contemplative and melancholy, instead features bouncing shoulders and cheeseball leg kicks. As such, the moment is wasted.

More memorable are the performances by Lewenthal as the long-suffering “Bolshevik” reporter with a deep, wonderfully solid voice; Jennifer Levey as the pert, Pippi Longstockingish sister; and Mike Dederian as the suitor who never quite grew up but who works hard for his rewards, making him somehow more likable and seemingly deserving than Cary Grant.

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