They don’t make musicals like they used to – but then, Cole Porter is no longer around. In fact, he wasn’t around in 1998 either when the stage version of his musical movie “High Society” opened on Broadway in a very short run. Porter, deceased for 35 years at the time, never got to see it. But neither did most of us.
I’m happy to report that the opportunity has come up – and don’t pass it up lightly unless you absolutely hate the thought of a couple hours of Big Fun. The Walnut Street Theatre’s main stage production of “High Society,” which opened last week, is all that and more.
It has every marker of high society in the ’30s, the era of “The Philadelphia Story,” the musical’s source. Robert Andrew Kovach’s stage settings on Long Island’s Oyster Bay ooze elegance, Mary Folino’s costumes reek of money (even the ones for the maids and butlers), and the sound (Will Pickens) and lighting (Paul Black) throw a fine-tuned sheen onto the upper-class affair.
What’s more, Frank Anzalone’s staging of this busy musical – people rush in and out amid a lot of hanky-panky, especially in the second act – has the same smooth cadence as the short, tuneful and immediately digestible songs Porter wrote for the 1958 film. (They better be short; there are 19 of them, not counting reprises.) The lyricist Susan Birkenhead added verses to Porter’s songs and lyrics – some taken from other shows — and Arthur Kopit wrote the show’s book.
The story of a carefree society gal, divorced from a dashing childhood sweetheart and on the verge of marrying a shlub, is peppered with American Songbook tunes that the Walnut serves up with style. Several are show-stoppers. Mary Jane Houdina sets a pumping choreography onto the able cast, everything from ’30s skidoo to a tap-dancing service staff.
With a flashy smile and a killer stage presence, Megan Nicole Arnoldy romps through the pre-nuptual party that’s the focus of the show. She’s a bride blushing from too much champagne, but when she sings “True Love” and “It’s All Right With Me,” it’s with a sobering beauty. Paul Schaefer, recently the phantom of Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera,” is the guy she has divorced. With his piercing eyes and strong bari-tenor, he joins Arnoldy in “True Love” and delivers a heartfelt “Just One of Those Things.”
Dan Schiff is the bride’s uncle and her wallet, too; he and a photographer played by Jenny Lee Stern ramp up the house with a funny “I’m Getting Myself Ready for You.” When I saw the show opening night, Alexis Gwynn played the bride’s kid sister and deftly flung her laugh lines – she has many in the glib script – for all they’re worth; Cambria Klein plays the role on weekends. Ben Dibble is the reporter who thinks he’s at the party undercover, Grace Gonglewski and Dan Olmstead are the bride’s parents and Jon Reinhold is the stiff-shirt groom-to-be. And when the cast gives out with “Well, Did You Evah!” all you can say is, what a swell party it’s been.
“High Society” runs through Oct. 25 at Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut between Eighth and Ninth Streets. 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.