"It's the wrong time and the wrong place," sings Tracy Lord, and one couldn't agree more. Too drunk to walk straight, the high-minded socialite still has the self-control to deliver Cole Porter's ballad to the idea that, at night, all cats are grey. ("Though your lips are tempting, they're the wrong lips./They're not his lips, but they're such tempting lips,/That... it's all right with me"). More important, the point of Tracy's escapade is that, suddenly uncertain about her wedding the next day, she hurls herself into the arms of the nearest attractive young man. The break for the song not only disrupts the comic pace, it makes Tracy's fling a deliberate act rather than a wild flight from reality.
Porter knew better than to let his words emerge from the wrong lips. Like most numbers in Fiona Laird's production, this was not written for the 1956 film High Society, and, like them, it is, as another line has it, "the wrong song in the wrong style". Songs written in the Fifties jostle tunes written up to three decades earlier. Everything is dumped into the same pot,making an indigestible musical evening of greatest hits.
This may bring in an audience, but it won't give them an understanding of musicals or a respect for what they can do. If people know only one thing about musicals, what they know is that, in the better sort, the numbers advance plot and character. Here they actually retard the story and violate character integrity. Tracy's Uncle Willie, a dozy old soak, hears a few notes and he's suddenly wiggling and jiggling. To discomfit unwanted visitors, Tracy's kid sister assumes an air of haughty sophistication; then she announces she is going to sing a song, and goes into an applause-milking, tooth-rotting performance of "Friendship".
The voices are strained and small, the lyrics often inaudible. (There's one exception: Mark Meadows delivers his one number with lovely phrasing, clarity and dead-pan humour.) Jenna Russell's Tracy is shrill not only when singing, and accompanies her lines with gestures that confirm suspicions about inbreeding among the upper classes. And Ian Duncan is too young and inexperienced for the part of Tracy's former husband, an alcoholic who has been to hell and back.
Not only the musical notes ring false, but also the comic and realist ones. Suffering a hangover, Uncle Willie bawls out a servant who, he says, has shouted "Good morning" at him. The joke, of course, is the man has uttered a soft-spoken greeting, but here the servant really does, implausibly, shout.
The Crucible amply deserves its Barclays award as Theatre of the Year, but those expecting a musical in keeping with its usual high standards will find themselves, at this High Society, in very low company.
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