There are some things that money just can't buy. Love, honest success, real adoration, and competency are but a few examples that come to mind.
Sadly, High Society, Shaw Festival's big-ticket (with several big names) production can’t claim to offer any of the above to theatre-goers, despite the small fortune sunk into the musical. There's the rub, and there's the irony - a production about the wonders of being rich can't buy its own success. (Despite the big names, it certainly isn’t going to win audiences any other way.)
If anything, the production is a reminder of everything a musical should not be or have: lazy actors, poor sound levels, off-pitch singing, dance numbers that are mediocre and unoriginal... the list of what goes wrong during the show is nearly as long as the dreadfully exhausting running time. Sampling a glass or two of delicious Niagara Region wine at intermission is a must - not because it’s renowned, but more so that you can make it through the second act without checking your watch every thirty seconds.
The beginning is deceptively promising: a spirited chorus of maids and butlers sing a peppy ditty about the joys of being “high society.” If you can ignore the one dancer that is noticeably behind everyone else, you may even enjoy the opening number. The tune is catchy, the costumes all match, and you’re lulled into thinking that this may be worth the money spent on tickets. But then the dizzying scene changes begin less than three minutes into the show, and you realize that the feeling you’re experiencing isn’t exhilaration - it’s seasickness.
The set pieces -- of which there are many -- whirl and twirl, often appearing for just one scene, never to be seen again. Don’t be fooled by the elaborate set changes - the only purpose they really serve is to distract from the principal actors skiving off their duties. Some set pieces have obviously been craftily designed, such as Tracy’s bureau that opens into a set of stairs. (It’s an omen: just like the story, the stairs go nowhere fast.) Other elements, like the cardboard frying pans that appear during a brief foray into the kitchen, are like supermodels: two-dimensional and somewhat aesthetically pleasing, but completely useless for any practical purpose.
What's worse than the flat set pieces are the actors and musical notes of the same calibre. The musical numbers get progressively worse as the show goes on, and everything after the opening becomes more and more of a disappointment as the actors wallow in a rut of mediocrity. They’re sort of in character, their singing isn’t completely out of tune, and there are glimmering moments when the characters almost connect to one another… but there’s very little emotion or enthusiasm in their words or actions. If director Kelly Robinson is trying to create a fluffy, saccharine, feel-good piece of theatre, he’s very far off the mark - most of the characters don’t appear to feel anything, and they certainly don’t inspire sentimentality in the audience. Camilla Scott (yes, that Camilla) struts and frets upon the stage like a dying fish trapped in a net. It's unclear as to why she was cast as the purportedly young female lead, Tracy Lord, and equally unclear if she had just drank too much at the last cast party, or if, even after all this time, she still hasn't learned her blocking or grasped her character. George (David Leyshon), Tracy’s working-class fiancée, is no better. There’s supposed to be some comedy in his humourlessness, but it’s nowhere to be found. The same rings true for the supposed affection between he and Tracey.
But, there is a bright spot in this murky mess - Tracy’s younger sister, Dinah. Melissa Peters is the only cast member who makes the show truly enjoyable, though only when she is onstage. Dinah is vivacious, sassy, and not afraid to tromp about in silly costumes; yet, she has more sense than any of the adults, and the audience loves her for it. Her duet with Dexter (Dan Chameroy) is certainly one of the better numbers: there is genuine affection between the two, and they’re both in key! However, in their defence, the chorus members also have some semblance of chemistry between them; it’s just hard to demonstrate when they have so many set pieces to move.
If the cast had all been as sharp as Dinah, the show would have been quirky and entertaining instead of dry and tedious. But Robinson fails both the actors and the audience by failing to adhere to a strong directorial vision from the beginning of the production onward.
High hopes dashed, Phillip Barry is certainly rolling in his grave.