BWW Review: THE PHILADELPHIA STORY Looks At A High Society Marriage Dilemma
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 31st March 2016
The Philadelphia Story, written by Philip Barry and directed with a focus on sharp wits and dysfunctional relationships by Kerrin White, opens the year for the Therry Dramatic Society. The 1940 film, based on the 1939 stage play, starred James Stewart, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but many may be more familiar with the 1956 Cole Porter musical film, High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra, the 1998 stage version of which was presented by this company in June 2005.
Philip Barry wrote the stage play especially for Katharine Hepburn, with the character of Tracy based on Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, a rather wild young Philadelphian socialite who married a friend of his. It is dated, of course and, being set before the Americans entered the war and women filled the workplaces of those who went to fight, gaining an unprecedented level of freedom and independence, social norms were very different. There is a strong element of Chauvinism and a good few sexist remarks in the script that must be taken in context.
Tracy Lord was briefly married to C. K. Dexter Haven. They divorced and now, in June 1939, she is to marry again, to the wealthy but rather boring George Kittredge, but three unexpected guests arrive to celebrate the impending nuptials. They are her ex-husband, Dexter, and two people from a scandal magazine invited by her brother, Alexander, known to the family as Sandy, reporter, Macaulay 'Mike' Connor, and photographer, Liz Imbrie. Dexter is there to try to win back Tracy from George but, to complicate matters, Mike also falls for the beautiful socialite, leaving her reeling as she tries to decide which of the three completely different men she loves.
Tracy's father and mother, Seth and Margaret Lord, are estranged, and he has been having an affair with a dancer, Tina Mara, so Mike and Liz are covering the society wedding proceedings in exchange for dropping the scandal story, a trade off arranged by Sandy with their boss, Sidney Kidd. Tracey tries to confuse the two magazine snoopers by having her Uncle Willie Tracy pretend to be her absent father, Seth, but Seth then arrives unexpectedly and so has to pretend to be Uncle Willie, adding to the confusion.
Lauren Renée plays the central character, Tracy Lord, basing her performance on that of Katherine Hepburn, often down to the voice, vocal inflections, and mannerisms. When she gives more of her own interpretation of the role, and supplies a uniquely new characterisation, the audience discovers a Tracy who is more engaging and with greater depth. This is why we go to the theatre rather than the cinema, for that individuality of performances, offering a new perspective each time.
Aaron MacDonald gives a brooding and forbidding C. K Dexter Haven, even standing on the sidelines and glaring, at times, as the play unfolds. When he interacts with others, MacDonald gives Dexter a different façade, a veneer of pleasantness, but with a sting in his conversations. Dexter hits the nail on the head when he accuses Tracy of being a "virgin goddess on a pedestal", but put their by herself, not by men. MacDonald handles hat scene well, exhibiting the mixed emotions associated with believing that this is what lead to the breakdown of their marriage. Like the other men, he fails to consider that his own attitudes were as much to blame.
Brad Martin is her fiancé, George Kitteridge, a self-made man, an upright citizen, and a basically good person but, unfortunately, stuck in his ways and rather dull. Like Tracy, Dexter, and Mike, he is opinionated and inflexible and Martin presents that rigidness well, particularly when he arrives just prior to the wedding to forgive Tracy for her transgressions the night before, which becomes his ultimate downfall.
James Whitrow is journalist, McAuley (Mike) Connor, stiff and cold in the presence of a social class that he despises, and Zoe Dibb is his photographer, Liz Imbrie, in love with him but waiting for him to realise that he loves her, too. They are a very good pairing, giving the clear impression that they have, indeed, worked together for quite a while. They are very comfortable together on stage and this rapport makes their chnaracter's familiarity convincing.
Henny Walters is wonderful as Dinah, Tracy's little sister, full of energy and with plenty of cheek and a touch of sarcasm. When the two put on a show to send up the two society reporters by acting as the privileged and overly indulged daughters of a wealthy family, the ridiculous caricatures that they create are real laugh getters. Walters bounces around the stage in a tutu, demonstrating to the bemused pair her ballet steps, her acting skills, and playing piano and singing, to the delight of the audience, and garnering huge applause during the bows for her efforts.
John Leigh Gray doesn't miss a trick as Uncle Willie, a roué when given the chance and a willing participant in Tracy's deception, stirring the pot whenever he can. Roman Turkiewicz is very good as Seth Lord, the other half of this occasional double act. They get a good share of laughs between them.
There is strong work, too, from Ron Densley, as the sneaky Sandy Lord, and Celine O'Leary, as the pragmatic matriarch of the family, Margaret Lord, as well as the brief appearances of Cherie Kennett, Daniel Malcolm, and Stanley Tuck as the servants of the household.
As so often happens in Adelaide, accents drifted in and out, and wandered around the States. Very few companies think to bring in an accent coach, which is a pity as there are people around who would be happy to help if only they were asked.
The stylish set was co-designed by Kerrin White and the late Vincent 'Vinnie' Eustace, a long time member of the company who was responsible for countless fine sets and who, very sadly, passed away recently. It is a great personal loss to those who were fortunate enough to have known him and he will be in their memories for a long time to come.
The opening night was a full house and the audience was most appreciative, with plenty of laughs and applause throughout the evening. The music of Benny Goodman with his orchestra and his quartet, taken, I believe from the recording of the famous 1938 Carnegie Hall jazz concert, did a lot to help set the era. This is a fun night out with wide appeal, but that full house suggests heavy ticket sales, so don't delay.