The Philadelphia Story meets Cole Porter in the rarely-produced High Society, and though hardly one of Broadway’s Greatest Hits, its one-night-only Alex Theatre revival once again proved Musical Theatre Guild a master of the concert staged reading.

 Golden era movie buffs will recall Katharine Hepburn lighting up the silver screen as vivacious Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord, engaged to one man (John Howard’s straight-laced George Kittredge), divorced from—but not yet over—another (Cary Grant as handsome, devil-may-care C.K. Dexter Haven), and unexpectedly attracted to a third (James Stewart as wedding-crashing Spy Magazine reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor).

MGM retitled and remade the 1940 black-and-white classic as a 1956 Technicolor musical starring Grace Kelly as Tracy, Bing Crosby as Dexter, Frank Sinatra as Mike, and John Lund as George, while inserting a bunch of new Cole Porter songs including “Well, Did You Evah?”, “Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire?”, and most notably the Oscar-nominated “True Love.”

 Broadway beckoned in 1998 with book writer Arthur Kopit’s musical stage adaptation, one that added an a dozen better known Porter songs, among them “I Love Paris,” “It’s All Right With Me,” and “Let’s Misbehave” (with additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) to make High Society as much jukebox musical as screen-to-stage transfer.

That the show ran a mere 144 performances and scored only a couple of featured performer Tony nominations suggests a musical fated to fade into obscurity, making it ripe for a Musical Theatre Guild one-night-only staged reading.

What High Society has going in its favor is the tangy romantic quadrangle that turned The Philadelphia Story into a box-office smash, earned the film six Oscar nominations including James Stewart’s sole Best Actor win, and made the film a perennial home video favorite.

Book writer Kopit retains playwright Barry’s most memorable scenes, and Porter’s songs are nothing if not hummable and his lyrics nothing if not clever.

 Still, with a two-hour-forty-five-minute running time more appropriate for a Wicked-scale extravaganza than what is essentially a chamber musical with “musical staging” rather than traditional Broadway choreography, High Society could stand a fifteen-to-thirty minute trim, many of those excess minutes featuring an ever more inebriated Uncle Willie, whose celebration of the joys of alcoholism in “Say It With Gin” seems less a joking matter in 2018 than it did back in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

 Fortunately, when High Society works (which is any time its four romantically intertwined protagonists and Mike’s secretly smitten photographer girl Friday Liz Imbrie take center stage), it works very well, and though anyone who’s seen either The Philadelphia Story or its movie musical adaptation knows who ends up tying the knot at the end, Kopit and Barry keep newbies guessing till the Act Two “Finale” gets sung.

A masterful Lewis Wilkenfeld directs the latest MTG concert staged reading as if it were a fully-staged production, that is to say there’s not a single straight-back chair onstage, set pieces take us from inside Tracy’s family estate to poolside and back, and characters appear only when it’s their cue.

Adding to the reading’s nearly full-staged look are almost as many costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg of AJS Costumes as you’d see in “the real thing,” and gorgeous costumes they are, in particular Tracy’s gowns that together with a spot-on 1940 shoulder-length do turn Shannon Warne into the most gorgeous Kate Hepburn clone ever to grace the Alex Theatre stage.

 One of L.A.’s most stellar musical comedy leading ladies, Warne captures all of Tracy’s beauty, wit, intelligence, and screwball charm, and sings Porter with the best of them.

Marc Ginsburg’s epitome-of-suave Dexter’s velvet pipes soar in “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “Just One Of Those Things,” then blend with Warne’s soprano in “True Love.”

Roger Befeler’s lanky appeal makes him a terrific stand-in for Jimmy Stewart, a cast-against-type Damon Kirsche delights as the stuffy George (who knows a thing or two about comic fisticuffs), and Calista Loter plays Tracy’s 12-year-old sis Dinah to the precocious hilt.

As for shutterbug Liz, it’s hard to imagine anyone better at combining sultry looks, smoky vocals, and a gift for the sarcastic throw-away line than the divine Stephanie Fredricks.

 Tracy’s feuding parents are played with effervescence and verve by Robert Yacko and Pamela Hamill, and if Uncle Willie’s booze addiction no longer registers as funny as it once did, it’s through no fault of Thomas W. Ashworth, who plays both the gin-guzzler and the ukulele like nobody’s business.

 Will Collyer, Tal Fox, Adam Lendermon, Alexandra Mitchell, and Kelsey Weinstein’s Greek Chorus of Lord family servants add harmonies and spice throughout.

Choreographer Heather Castillo stirs and shakes in a couple of lively dance numbers and some ballroom dancing to the mix, with musical director Cassie Nickols and her six-piece mini-big band providing expert backup from “Overture” to “Finale.”

Jennifer Shelton is production coordinator. Art Brickman is production stage manager, Paige Loter is stage manager, and Murryn DuFour is assistant stage manager.

Given its largely-forgotten status, a big-stage L.A. revival of High Society is unlikely to happen anytime soon, which is why imperfect or not, if you missed Sunday’s one-performance-only MTG reading, you lost your chance to savor its many charms.

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Alex Theatre, Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
February 11, 2018
Photos: Alan Weston

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