Ontario’s power problems are over. Should supply exceed demand between now and November, simply hooking up the grid to the Shaw Festival’s high-voltage production of Cole Porter’s High Society will swamp the lines, leaving no one in the dark and whistling a tune to boot!
From the opening chorus of the show’s namesake, the Lord Household’s servants show they are masters of their domain: singing and dancing up a storm that, with a few notable exceptions, far outshines the principals as they work through the details of the one-wedding-three-grooms storyline that provides the excuse for all of the hijinks and hilarity.
An early showstopper is “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” (perhaps Regis will drop by for a cameo during his upcoming Casino Niagara stint). Under the adroit leadership of director Kelly Robinson, choreographer John MacInnis deploys his charges with wave after wave of high-kicking legs, fully extended arms (where not even the fingers are given a moment’s rest) in and out of William Schmuck’s rolling-stock set. The unstoppable bodies and the burnt-orange-based colour scheme headily combine with the sassy score, energizing both sides of the stage in a manner too seldom seen in Niagara-on-the Lake. Whoopee!
While the maids and butlers are most certainly a team, tossing their props with surety, moving into and out of many reprise tableaus with deceptive ease, there is no doubt that Shaw newcomer David Lopez (rich baritone and a knowing visage that adds more back-story and insider gossip than a three-hundred word text message) is the catch of the day. Yet rather than blow his compatriots away, he inspires and supports, daring each number to heat up a degree or two. By the time “She’s Got That Thing” revs up and tassels reach “full twirl” it’s hard to remember this production is lifting off in staid Niagara wine country, perhaps future marketing pieces will refer to these presentations as a “spectacular Broadway Shaw!”
In the leads, the voices of note belong to Jay Turvey as Mike Connor (“You’re Sensational” note-for-note the finest music-making of the two acts) and Patty Jamieson in the role of his nearly-loved sidekick and fellow gossip columnist Liz Imbrie (a compelling late-inning beckon in “I’m Getting Myself Ready for You”).
Next up on the kudos list is Melissa Peters who brings just the right mix of naïveté, street smarts and adult-manipulation to the part of Dinah—the much younger sister of Tracy (Camilla Scott). Scott makes effective use of her comedic gifts and range of delivery, but seems content to belt-and-deliver her songs rather than craft them with equal care and subtlety.
Of her two other suitors (the third being Connor whose brief skinny-dip infatuation only serves to bring him closer to his true love—Hey! It’s a musical, these outrageous situations never happen in the “real” theatre …) boat-builder and ex-husband Dexter Haven (Dan Chameroy) gets the best songs and the girl. Chameroy has all the right stuff until the top of his charts prove an insurmountable task. As the jilted groom (sadly, he’s not an alcoholic so doesn’t fit the family profile), David Leyshon portrays George Kittredge with believable outrage and exits with dignity. Which is more than lecher, drunk and all-around party favourite Uncle Willie (Neil Barclay, as broad and blustery as ever) can say.
The senior Lords (Sharry Flett and Lorne Kennedy), despite some philandering by the man-of-the-house with blackmail attracting tarts, serve up a compelling example of let-the-past-fade-into-infamy, for there is more to a long-term relationship than fidelity, er, pass the champagne.
Music director Paul Sportelli and his talented band swept through their leader’s sparkling adaptation with compelling zest—only a couple of false entries will vanish in successive performances. Like the Lords’ employees above them, they keep the pace fast-and-furious, letting their enthusiasm co-mingle with that of their colleagues on stage, adding yet another dimension of excellence to Robinson’s magical vision.
But there’s another mix that threatens to scuttle the combined efforts and sink the good ship High Society even as it embarks on its summer/fall voyage into the ears and eyes of thousands of patrons: that of the reinforced sound.
With mics in the pit, the orchestra—inadvertently—comes across recorded and not well done at that. The natural acoustics of Festival Hall and the “managed” reproduction of Peter McBoyle’s well-intentioned sound design, exacerbate rather than complement—“Just One of Those Things.” On stage, the dialogue, literally on several occasions, fades in and out while the vocal lines have an unflattering edge that gives the entire show an unnatural hue. Would there be panic in the aisles if a line or two was covered? Imagine Porter “au natural!” “Let’s Misbehave!” With this spectacular cast—left to their own skills of diction, projection and style—why not pull the plug on progress and unleash High Society directly to the admiring throng? JWR