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'High Society' 

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Not Yar: Chaz Simonds and Vanessa Schepps co-star.

Parlor Games

'High Society' provides plenty of the wrong kind of fun

There are a number of useful mental exercises known to and practiced by regular attendees of live theater. Strictly for emergencies, these little head games are sometimes played when faced with a show that is clearly and sadly--how shall I put it?--not good enough to recommend. Box Office, for example, is a game in which we mentally adjust the ticket price to reflect what the company should be charging for the show as opposed to what they actually are charging.

Such game playing is seldom admitted to in public, for fear that someone will say, "Well, if you hadn't been so busy playing Mental Monopoly, you might have noticed how good the show really was." Trust me: if the show is good, no one in the audience plays games in her head. Good shows don't require such measures. The good shows take care of themselves. The not-so-good . . . well. . . .

That brings us to High Society, the current season-ending show by the Novato Community Players, a company known for the general excellence of its productions. Directed by Carrie Sugarman (whose joyous 2003 staging of NCP's The Most Happy Fella proved she is capable of hitting a theatrical home run), High Society is a musical version of the beloved stage play and movie The Philadelphia Story.

With music and lyrics by Cole Porter and book by Arthur Kopit, High Society tells the tale of Tracy Lord (Vanessa Schepps), a rich divorcée with anger-management issues who is about to marry George Kittredge (Ken Bacon), a boring but safe groom when compared to her last husband, Dexter (Chaz Simonds). On the eve of the wedding, the Lord family's mansion is infiltrated by Mike Connor (Gary Howes) and Liz Imbrie (Pamela Whipp), a pair of reporters from a local society paper. Even less welcome is the arrival of ex-husband Dex, an affable millionaire who'd rather design yachts than run a business.

Though the production is greatly helped by a couple of splendid supporting performances from veteran actor John Conway as Tracy's skirt-chasing, hard-drinking Uncle Willie and the talented young Melissa Marsh as Tracy's precocious little sister, Dinah, the cast provided plenty of material for a time-honored little theater game I call Mentally Recasting the Show.

Schepps boasts one of the better singing voices in the production, yet she plays Tracy Lords with too little of the anarchistic fire that would make her character's actions make sense. Playing the game now, I'd have cast Schepps instead as Liz, the jaded photographer, and put that role's Pamela Whipp (a Jessica Lange look-alike) into the Tracy Lords role.

And Chaz Simonds is egregiously miscast as the dashing Dex. Too mild-mannered to convey the dangerous raw magnetism required to woo Tracy away from her life's safe harbor, Simonds is better suited for the role of Kittredge. I'd even have preferred him as Mike the reporter, dropping the not-nearly-impulsive-enough Gary Howes into the role of Seth Lord, Tracy's father.

As for Simonds, who obviously has talent that isn't able to shine in this part, I'd like to see him play Motel the tailor in some upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof. Cast this man as Motel, and I'd be right there in the front row.

Another way to enjoy a below-average show is to play Christopher Guest at the Table, in which one imagines the show is just a series of outtakes from Guest's community theater mockumentary Waiting for Guffman. High Society, if viewed from this perspective, is frequently hilarious, but not in the way it's intended to be.

Case in point: while musical director Katy Hatfield does a splendid job directing a tight, capable band, she provided a simultaneous floor show of sorts as she fought a nightlong battle with her sheet music, routinely slapping errant pages back into place (whack! whack! whack!) whenever her music threatened to close on her as she played piano in plain view of everyone. Even the cast seemed distracted by it at times.

Christopher Guest would have loved that.

'High Society' runs Friday-Saturday, May 7-8 and May 14-15 at 8pm; Sunday, May 9, at 3pm. Novato Community Playhouse, 908 Machin St., Novato. $10-$17. 415.892.3005.

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From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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