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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

High Society: What a Swell Party It Is
Walnut Street Theatre
Review by Rebecca Rendell

Ben Dibble, Megan Nicole Arnoldy, Jon Reinhold, and Paul Schaefer
The Walnut Street Theatre kicks off its 2015-16 season with Cole Porter's old fashioned feel-good musical High Society. Based on the 1956 film musical of the same name, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra (which is based on Philip Barry's 1939 stage comedy The Philadelphia Story), the stage musical, with book by Arthur Kopit, premiered on Broadway in 1998. The seamlessly integrated score is top notch. Thanks to some magnificent performances and a dose of bawdy humor, this High Society stays laugh out loud funny, entertaining, and fresh throughout.

Our story takes place in 1938 Oyster Bay, Long Island, and centers around sparkling socialite Tracy Lord (Megan Nicole Arnoldy) whose wedding weekend is interrupted by her charming ex-husband Dexter Haven (Paul Schaefer), a pair of snooping reporters (Ben Dibble and Jenny Lee Stern), and her precocious little sister Dinah. Tracy tries to choose between her fiancé, her ex-husband and the suddenly smitten reporter, while the rest of the wedding guests have romantic dalliances of their own.

High Society is full of classic Cole Porter tunes ("High Society," "What Is This Thing Called Love?", "Let's Misbehave," and "True Love"), but even the lesser known songs are instantly memorable. "I'm Getting Myself Ready for You" and "Say It with Gin" are unforgettable, funny and surprisingly risque. The fantastic orchestra in the pit is a treat. The rhythm section swings and propels the big numbers.

The cast is stellar with several stand out performances. Paul Schaefer seems to have stepped away from a 1930s Yale regatta to give a pitch perfect performance as ex-husband Dexter. Effortlessly charming, Schaefer makes the audience root for him and gives the entire production a sense of authenticity.

Jenny Lee Stern and Ben Dibble play the snooping reporters. They are a crackerjack comic team (my favorite scenes are the ones where they work off each other) and each gives a great performance in his or her own right. Stern delivers laugh after laugh, but still manages to hit an emotional chord as the unrequited lover in "He's a Right Guy," while Dibble brings the character of Mike Connor to life with a heartfelt performance that makes his sudden infatuation with Tracy believable.

Dan Schiff plays Uncle Willie, the bottom-pinching, gin-drinking life of the party. Schiff's comic timing is excellent and his lighthearted performance keeps the production fun and upbeat. Alexis Gwynn (who plays Dinah on Tuesday-Friday evenings, partnered with Cambria Klein, who performs Thursday matinees and all Saturday and Sunday shows, with a few exceptions) does a terrific job as the mischievous younger sister who knows more than she should.

There are also a few missteps. Megan Nicole Arnoldy gives a strong vocal performance as Tracy Lord, but an inappropriately brash attitude, overwrought hair, and some awkward costume choices make her seem more like a thirty-something country music singer than a twenty-something socialite. Because she comes off as too old to play the ingénue there are a few awkward lines and uncomfortable moments during her performance. The 1980s punk princess wedding dress she wears in the second act is just bizarre.

Sparse sets do not convey a lush 1930s glamor, which seems like a missed opportunity, though with music and a cast this phenomenal you may not even notice. High Society delivers laughs, swinging standards and a highly entertaining 1940s Broadway style experience without feeling out of date. Walnut Street Theatre has delivered a spectacular start to the season.

High Society runs through October 25, 2015, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. For tickets and information, call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787. Tickets are also available online 24/7 by visiting or Ticketmaster.

The Cast
Margaret Lord: Grace Gonglewski
Dinah Lord: Alexis Gwynn †, Cambria Klein ‡
Tracy Lord: Megan Nicole Arnoldy
Uncle Willie: Dan Schiff
Dexter Haven: Paul Schaefer
Mike Connor: Ben Dibble
Liz Imbrie: Jenny Lee Stern
George Kittredge: Jon Reinhold
Seth Lord: Dan Olmstead

Robert Abdoo, Laura Giknis, Billy D. Hart, Jesse Jones, Michael Philip O’brien, Jenny Piersol, Kerri Rose, Adrienne Wells

Production And Design Staff
Director: Frank Anzalone
Choreographer: Mary Jane Houdina
Musical And Vocal Director: Douglass G. Lutz
Scenic Design: Robert Andrew Kovach
Lighting Design: Paul Black
Costume Design: Mary Folino
Sound Design: Will Pickens

† Performs all Tuesday-Friday evenings, plus Monday evening 9/21 and Sunday evening 10/4.
‡ Performs all Thursday matinees and all shows Saturday-Sunday except 10/4 evening, plus Tuesday matinee 9/22.

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Rebecca Rendell

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