I walked into The Philadelphia Story with a real spring in my step. Admittedly, I’d never seen this play before, but how bad could it be given that the film — surely one of the two or three greatest romantic comedies ever to come out of Hollywood — was so closely based on Philip Barry’s 1939 hit? With Kevin Spacey in the Cary Grant role, Jennifer Ehle playing Tracy Lord and Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks at the helm, it couldn’t fail, could it?
Alas, what I’d expected to be a long, tall glass of vintage champagne turned out to be vin ordinaire. The play is much more of an ensemble piece than the film and requires a degree of integration among the cast that the performers in this production don’t come close to achieving. This may partly be because there are both British and American actors on stage and, stylistically, they are poles apart. If you add the fact that all the British actors are trying to do American accents — with very mixed results — The Philadelphia Story plays less like a chamber piece and more like something by Stockhausen.
Spacey seems completely wrong for the role of C.K. Dexter Haven, which is a much more threadbare part here than it is in the film. He deliberately hams it up, throwing as many conspiratorial, sidelong glances to the audience as he can, and the upshot is that he seems rather camp, not at all the debonair playboy who holds the key to Tracy Lord’s heart. His slightly prissy disdain for George Kitteridge, Tracy Lord’s boorish fiancé, feels less like aristocratic froideur and more like the attitude of one of the makeover queens on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Billy Elliot: the Musical is easily the best new musical I’ve seen since I started reviewing plays four years ago.