For a taste of dizzying, bubbly, champagne look no further than Villanova Players production of High Society. With music and lyrics by Cole Porter, a book by Arthur Kopit, and additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, High Society tells the tale of Tracy Samantha Lord as she prepares for her second marriage. With covert reporters, an ex husband, and an estranged father all turning up for the nuptials, and a frankly gorgeous score, the production has a little something for everyone.
Co-directed by Jacqueline Kerr and Helen Ekundayo, the small space was used well with a tiny cast, the band set up on a platform as a wedding band, and small, stylish set pieces being swiftly taken on and off by the cast. This kept a production that could very easily drag constantly moving forward. Kerr and Ekundayo made the most of the gorgeously simple set design, and limited space, making it work as a production strength, rather than a limitation. Ekundayo also created the choreography which for the most part was kept simple, and tightly executed by the cast. The team kept a close eye on the comedy of the show, a very American-style dry humour, and made sure that the company didn’t drop a single joke throughout the night.
Sean Fagan’s musical direction was overall quite sound, with some strong leads doing some of the heavy lifting. His orchestra was a little loud in sections, but there is no real way to combat this given the nature of the venue. Full credit has to go to Fagan, cast, and ensemble for this one, as the production has a particularly difficult score, and the hours of rehearsal showed themselves, especially with the offstage cues, as there was no camera to cue to, and the company never faltered to come in cue.
As Tracy Samantha Lord, Louella Baldwin is the undisputed standout star of the show. Her sassy asides, and razor sharp claws flex often through this witty comedy, and Baldwin manages to make every single punch land perfectly. Vocally Baldwin is divine, her voice soaring through the Cole Porter score with practised ease. The eye of the storm, Baldwin’s Lord is as easily charming as she is effortlessly caustic, providing an anchor for all other characters to hold on to as they move through the show.
As ex husband CK Dexter Haven, Michael McNish oozes charm and charisma. The perfect foil against Baldwin, he has a capable rejoinder for every barb she slings, letting them run off him like water off a ducks back. McNish has a wonderful sense of ease in the space, and in his work with the other ensemble members, in particular his work with Lillian Dowdell as the youngest Lord, Dinah. The pair have such a charming relationship it’s like watching an adorable buddy cop movie as they plot and scheme.
The roles of Liz Imbrie and Mike Connor (played by Lucy Moxon and Peter Cattach respectively) are interesting characters. Originally set up as the “undercover reporters set to ruin the families reputation” they are quickly fleshed out into struggling artists trying to make ends meet with deeply harboured feelings that both need to confess.
As Connor, Cattach balances a slight ooze of sleazy reporter, and then sheds it effortlessly for the charming writer underneath who is good with language, and maybe not so good at swimming. He has a wonderful spark against Baldwin’s Tracy, and the two explore what it means to be flawed and fragile as a human being. Their work in the drunken scenes is spectacular. Cattach has gorgeous chemistry with Moxon, who plays Liz Imbrie as a decisive, strong, thoroughly principled woman, who watches bemused as her friend falls slowly for the trappings of being a wealthy socialite.
As the “most boring man on Earth” George Kittridge, Garry Condoseres plays a wonderful straight foil to all of the madness going on around him. Perpetually bewildered and heartwarmingly without guile, Condoseres is the normality in a sea of utter indulgence, and strange rules of living in the upper echelons of society. He gives a refreshingly honest portrayal of a self made man, focused on the next step in front of him. His fractious relationships with both McNish and Baldwin is wonderfully balanced, and the begrudging respect he comes to have for them both and himself is thoroughly charming.
Phillipa Bowe is a delight as the nearly constantly overwhelmed, flighty, well meaning mother Margaret Lord. She flits about focused on wedding plans, and decorum, and doing the “right” thing, and trying to juggle being a good mother while really having no understanding about boundaries at all. Bowe absolutely nails the character, making her a much loved, if slightly ineffectual matriarch of the Lord family, who warms audiences hearts whenever she is onstage.
Thoroughly gin soaked and debaucherous, Leo Bradley’s portrayal of Uncle Willie comes very close to stealing many of the scenes he is in. Bradley provides a wonderful sense of joie de vivre, drinking and flirting up a storm, playing footsies under the table, and spending half the show chasing Moxon’s Liz Imbrie all over the theatre. It is a thoroughly charming portrayal, and he absolutely nails the balance of being “drunk” but not “too drunk” onstage.
As head servant Chester, Steven Eggington is delightful. A part that grows as the production does, he works with a wonderfully dry sense of humour, and gives the tireless sense of having seen it all a hundred times before, and will see it all a hundred times again. Eggington offers some much needed levity to scenes, and in many ways, is the audiences window into the world.
Wayward husband Seth Lord is played with aplomb by Trevor Bond, giving the irascible cheat a heartwarming cheer that would often be missing from the character. His work with Bowe is delightful, fully embracing the world of debauchery and Uber-wealth. Bond finds a good sense of amusement at his children’s antics, and provides a sense of “heart” to the family, irrespective of the fact that his dalliances have been reason for them falling apart in the first place.
A production is only ever as strong as it’s ensemble, and in the case of High Society, Villanova have found a small but dedicated ensemble, who deftly bring the set pieces on and off, develop interesting relationships aside from the main storyline, and sing and dance up a frenzy throughout the production. As the chorus is so often onstage and so often not doing anything, this could be quite distracting, but the level of focus and attention from each of the members, standing to attention waiting for the next moment they are required is impressive.
For a feel good, tongue in cheek, wonderfully exuberant night at the theatre you simply must head to Seven Hills and check out the newly refurbished space. You’ll laugh, sing, and leave the theatre floating happily on a cloud. Tickets are available at www.villanovaplayers.com for a strictly limited season. Don’t miss out!