Wednesday, August 06, 2014

"The Philadelphia Story" delights at The Shaw Festival

When the title “The Philadelphia Story” is mentioned, most people knowledgeable about movies think of Katharine Hepburn.  What they aren’t aware of is the depth of Hepburn’s stamp on the play and the film versions of the script.  The play was written specifically for Ms. Hepburn.  The language, the speech cadence, the style of presentation were direct reflections of one of the theatre’s and Hollywood’s most identifiable and legendary stars.

Philip Barry’s 1939 stage comedy tells the story of socialite, Tracy Lord, whose wedding plans are complicated by not only the arrival of her ex-husband, but an attractive journalist.  The Lord part was inspired by Helene Hope Montgomery Scott, whose sexual and personal hijinks were well known.  She married a friend of Barry’s, and thus,  the facts of her often bizarre life were known to him.   Hepburn loved the script so much that she agreed not only to star in it, but to financially back it by foregoing any salary in return for a percentage of the play’s profits.  She starred in the Broadway production with Joseph Cotton, Van Heflin and Shirley Booth.

The film rights were bought by Howard Hughes, who gave them to Hepburn as a gift.  It was adapted into a film in 1940 and starred Cary Grant, Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart.  It was adapted in 1956 into the MGM musical, “High Society,”
which featured Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra and had music and lyrics by Cole Porter.

“The Philadelphia Story” is an American drawing room comedy which parallels the tone and style of a Noel Coward British humorous investigation and expose of the upper privileged classes.  

Tracy Lord, of the “Philadelphia Lords,” is headstrong and spoiled.  What Tracy wants, Tracy gets!  She is divorced from C. K. Dexter Haven, and is now engaged to George, an uptight, obsessive compulsive snob.  The duo is about to get married at the Lord family’s estate.  This is an era of newspapers reporting on the upper classes, so a reporter and a photographer (early day era paparazzi) are present for the coverage of the impending wedding.  Tracy becomes interested in the reporter and goes skinny dipping with him in the estate’s pool.  The next morning George smugly forgives her actions, but Tracy, now seeing George’s shallowness, breaks off the engagement just as the wedding is to take place.  What happens next?  In order to get the answer you need to see the play, get a copy of the script, or rent the movie! 

After a slow first act, the second act of the Shaw production picked up the pace and became a delightful, cheery, smile piece.

Moya O’Connell, complete with red hair, not only looks like Kathryn Hepburn, but has some of same vocal inflections and mannerisms.  Though imitation is often considered the highest form of flattery, but the lowest form of art, in this case it works well.  The role was written specifically for Hepburn’s speaking cadence and emphasis patterns.  Reinventing the character would not have been wise, so the duplication works.

Thom Marriott makes George so very, very uptight.  Patrick McManus makes Mike into a man of compassion.  Gray Powell is endearing, and makes one wonder why Tracy ever divorced him.  The rest of the cast is excellent.  They each create an individual character that is consistent and caricature correct. 

The sets are eye appealing and appropriate to the era and the opulence of such an estate.  The clothing styles are well designed to fit the mood and reflect the characters. 

Capsule judgement: The  Shaw’s “The Philadelphia Story,” under the able direction of Dennis Garnhum, is a delightful theatrical experience, much in the mood of a Noel Coward drawing room comedy, set in the United States. It is well staged, well acted, and nicely paced.