HIGH SOCIETY at The Mill at Sonning
“An elegant production. A swell party indeed. What a swellegant, elegant party this is!”
There’s a bit of a bluesy, Southern vibe about the Mill at Sonning’s “High Society”; as though we’re on the banks of the Mississippi rather than Long Island’s North Shore. Yet at the same time there’s a feel-good fifties swing that flits between the New York plaza suites and a high school prom reunion. For the senses this is an intoxicating mix that makes you feel as lightheaded as the bubbles in the constantly flowing champagne onstage. It takes a little while, however, for it to find its flavour.
The musical draws from the 1939 play ‘A Philadelphia Story’ and the 1956 musical film ‘High Society’. The original Cole Porter songs are all there, with others from his catalogue thrown into the mix for the stage version, slotting into the narrative with varying degrees of success. A narrative that is, on the surface, flimsy, flirtatious and fun. There is some underlying social commentary about class, but overall, it is a backdrop to the music, and it relies on the delivery and the snappy dialogue. Joe Pitcher’s revival focuses on the razzmatazz with glitzy performances from the lead players, ensemble and musicians alike.
It is the summer of 1958, an evening aglow with a warm setting sun. Preparations are underway for the wedding of society-divorcee Tracy Lord (Victoria Serra) and George Kitteridge (Will Richardson). Tracy’s first husband, Dexter Haven (Matt Blaker), gate-crashes events with predictable results as he tries to win back the affections of his first wife. Meanwhile a tabloid newspaper possesses embarrassing information about Tracy’s wayward father and has coerced the family into allowing reporter Mike Conner (Matthew Jeans) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Laura Tyrer) to cover the nuptials. Thus begins a tangled web of romances and revelations.
“the gorgeous splashes of colour from Natalie Titchener’s sumptuous costumes wash across the stage in time to Jaye Elster’s dazzling choreography”
Pitcher’s immersive staging allows the audience to feel like they are guests at the party, the auditorium being an extension to the sumptuous drawing room where most of the action takes place. Chris Whybrow’s sound design evokes the festivities spilling outside; to the gardens, the pool and down to the moonlit beach where Dexter’s yacht is moored. The band wander into and out of view, while the gorgeous splashes of colour from Natalie Titchener’s sumptuous costumes wash across the stage in time to Jaye Elster’s dazzling choreography. But when the music pauses, for the most part the dialogue lacks the quick-fire lightness of touch that Arthur Kopit’s book requires, leaving the lines to be dragged back by an earnestness that dims the twinkle in these characters’ eyes. There are exceptions. Victoria Serra is quite a force to be reckoned with as Tracy Lord; sometimes angry, often drunk and always playful. Katlo, in her professional debut, is a pure bundle of joy as Lord’s little sister Dinah, and a name to watch out for. When the tabloid hacks waft in to ruffle a few feathers, we get a real sense of the fifties film’s original showmanship and delivery. Jeans’ smooth-talking, all-knowing journalist melts hearts left right and centre while, despite his dubious occupation, his own heart nobly aims Cupid’s arrow away from himself to let ‘true love’ blossom in the correct place.
In fact, none of the performers fail to melt our hearts during the musical numbers. The ensemble harmonies are exquisite, while the solo moments scorch as they weave seamlessly between the smouldering ballads and the flaming Latin passion that fires Cole Porter’s songs, courtesy of Jerome Van Den Berghe’s arrangements. A brave approach, but fans of Cole Porter will not be disappointed. as each cast member take their turn to lend their beautiful vocals.
“High Society”, although not particularly festive, is a Christmas treat that you can’t afford to miss. An elegant production. A swell party indeed. What a swellegant, elegant party this is!
HIGH SOCIETY at The Mill at Sonning
Reviewed on 9th December 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Andreas Lambis
Previously reviewed at this venue: