Entertainment & Arts

High Society musical ends Kevin Spacey Old Vic tenure

Kate Fleetwood in High Society Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption Fleetwood plays Tracy Lord, played on screen by Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly

The final production of Kevin Spacey's tenure as artistic director of the Old Vic - Cole Porter musical High Society - has opened in London.

Its director, Maria Friedman, said it was an "honour" to bring the curtain down on Spacey's time at the theatre.

"I'm fantastically grateful to be given this opportunity," said the singer and actress after Thursday's first night.

The Guardian said the show "makes a festive climax" to Spacey's 11-year involvement with the venue.

"Friedman... treats the whole thing as a party to which we've all been invited," wrote its critic Michael Billington.

"I can't imagine this musical... being much better done than it is here," he continued, before going on to call it "a bit of a mishmash".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Friedman (centre) celebrates with Fleetwood and fellow cast member Annabel Scholey (left)

Set in Long Island in the late 1950s, High Society tells of a flighty socialite, Tracy Lord, who finds herself torn between three suitors on her wedding weekend.

The musical, adapted from the 1939 stage play The Philadelphia Story, is best known for the 1956 film version starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong.

"The intention was to give people a wonderful, joyous party," said Friedman. "It starts as a romp, a light entertainment, but it has a deep heart."

The actress, who made her directorial debut with Merrily We Roll Along in 2012, said High Society's characters were "beguiling and intoxicating" and its score was "rich with hit after hit".

The show, in which Kate Fleetwood plays Tracy, features such popular Porter standards as Well, Did You Evah?, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Just One of Those Things.

It also features an engaging turn from Joe Stilgoe, son of lyricist Sir Richard, who begins the evening by concocting an improvised "mash-up" of songs solicited from members of the audience.

Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption Joe Stilgoe is the son of Sir Richard Stilgoe, the celebrated lyricist and entertainer

One of the rejected suggestions on Thursday came from the BBC's Andrew Marr, who challenged the pianist to incorporate Prokofiev's 5th Symphony.

"I'm very keen to make things spontaneous and real," said Friedman, adding that the "absolutely improvised" prologue was intended "to make people comfortable".

In his five-star review in the Daily Mail, critic Quentin Letts singled out Stilgoe's "brilliant pre-show turn" and a "top notch" duet with keyboardist Theo Jamieson for praise.

"All hail an uncomplicated, super show," continued the writer, who described the musical - last seen in the West End in 2005 - as "a celebration of late-Fifties plutocracy".

In her four-star critique in the Daily Telegraph, Serena Davies said Spacey's "final piece of programming.. may prove [to be] one of the hits of the summer".

The aforementioned duet, she went on, is so "breathtaking... it feels as if the champagne hasn't just gone to the heads of the wedding guests... but the audience's too."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kevin Spacey's contribution to the Old Vic was recognised at a gala event last month

"This staging achieves the arguably rare feat of surpassing its filmic predecessor," wrote Holly Williams in The Independent, saying it "makes for a 'swellegant, elegant' last hurrah".

Writing on the WhatsOnStage website, though, Michael Coveney said there was "much wrong" with the "energetic, high-spirited" production and that "style and finesse don't figure on the agenda".

Spacey, who will be succeeded as artistic director by Matthew Warchus, played the role of CK Dexter Haven, Tracy's amorous ex-husband, in an Old Vic production of The Philadelphia Story in 2005.

Friedman said staging High Society brought things "full circle" and represented a "nice conclusion" to the House of Cards star's tenure, which began in 2004 with the divisive Dutch comedy Cloaca.

High Society continues at the Old Vic in London until 22 August.

Listen to Neil Brand's review on Radio 3's Free Thinking programme.

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