Niagara Gazette

Night & Day

July 17, 2014

'Philadelphia Story' takes its act up north

Night & Day — NIAGARA ON THE LAKE, Ont. — Before there was “E!” there was “Philadelphia Story,” the big romantic comedy (emphasis romantic) in the Shaw’s Festival Theater.

The time is 1939, when most rich and famous were content with rich alone. They had their own cadre of newspaper “society writers,” who were actually paid less than their peers. What happened on the estate stayed in the estate.

But now Tracy Lord, wed once to charming rogue Dexter Haven, is about to tie another knot with self-made coal king George Kittering. A tabloid magazine dispatches a reporter-photographer team to dig for dirt. Because there another skeleton in the family closet, the Lords slide beneath the media microscope as the lesser of two evils.

Philip Barry’s play saved the career of Katherine Hepburn. A movie swiftly followed. A later musical remake, “High Society,” starred Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong. Well, did you evah, as Cole Porter lyricized.

Here it sprawls as only the Shaw can, magnificent set, classy costumes, props to cry for, three sets of skis as wedding presents. Moya O’Connell makes Tracy her own. It’s hard not to be Hepburn here, and even the facial resemblances challenges the canny, but often the actress simply breaks away, a very un-Kate screech here, a nod there, a character another describes as unique to American women.

Dexter is deftly done by Gray Powell, a daring choice by Director Dennis Garnhum, as he’s distinctly smaller than groom-apparent Thom Marriot and in his first appearance looks rather like a jockey. His spat with his ex positively sparkles.

There’s a nifty little role for Tess Benger as the younger and in many ways wiser sister, breathlessly outlining “illickit passion.” But that Phillies hat? Nah, wasn’t their logo in 1939, and the A’s were the bigger team in town. Just sayin’. Patrick McManus does splendidly as the reporter, the Sinatra role, although the accent seems forced, and there’s a nice turn by Ric Reed as the raffish Uncle Willie.

A few first-act lines were muffled, many believed, just as these goings-on would have been quieted in their time. The second act was much improved, inspiring huge applause as the curtain fell on the rise of nosiness in North America. “Story” goes public until Oct. 25.

Doug Smith has been reviewing area theater since 1968.

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