Melissa Errico Defies Legend in High Society

Melissa Errico Defies Legend in High Society Wendy Hiller, Ava Gardner, both Hepburns, Mary Martin, the Princess of Monaco, Julie Andrews -- it should be clear by now that Melissa Errico, in her five-year Broadway career, knows no fear about slipping into a role that becomes a legend most. It's her specialty -- from Eliza Doolittle to Venus to Maj. Barbara Undershaft -- and it's not until later, when she looks back over her shoulder, that the quivers set in.
Left to right:  Daniel McDonald with Anna Kendrick, Melissa Errico and Stephen Bogardus, Errico and Company
Left to right: Daniel McDonald with Anna Kendrick, Melissa Errico and Stephen Bogardus, Errico and Company (Photo by Photos By Joan Marcus)

Wendy Hiller, Ava Gardner, both Hepburns, Mary Martin, the Princess of Monaco, Julie Andrews -- it should be clear by now that Melissa Errico, in her five-year Broadway career, knows no fear about slipping into a role that becomes a legend most. It's her specialty -- from Eliza Doolittle to Venus to Maj. Barbara Undershaft -- and it's not until later, when she looks back over her shoulder, that the quivers set in.

"Oh, Audrey Hepburn. Just Audrey Hepburn," she chirps with mock matter-of- factness about her Broadway bow, at age 21 (!), in My Fair Lady. "I thought, 'God! How did I do that so early on?'"

Four years later, she solidified her star status playing the Goddess of Love for five performances of One Touch of Venus in the City Center Encores! series -- and, again, "I don't know how I pulled that off. My mother has always said I was like a race horse at the gate. You just let me go, and I go. The more time I have to analyze myself, the more I get bogged down in self-criticism."

The latest and, to date, most outrageous example of Errico daredeviltry is High Society's Tracy Lord, formerly of Philadelphia and Newport and now -- at the St. James Theatre in Arthur Kopit's adaptation, with a Cole Porter score and additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead -- Oyster Bay. When Philip Barry created the character in The Philadelphia Story for Katharine Hepburn to do onstage and screen, she was a Main Line blueblood whose "intolerance for human frailty" elevated her somehow and put her on this unapproachable perch, a goddess to be worshipped rather than loved. Much like the statue of Venus coming to life from a kiss by a department-store window dresser, love levels Lord; it brings her down to earth and humanizes her so she can play with other mortals (most ardently: her ex, her next and the reporter who has come to cover her second wedding).

"I like the fact that Tracy's not the obvious heroine," says Errico. "When you first meet her, she's a cruel, confident perfectionist. Everything she does, she does with bravado, and that's a hard way for an audience to meet the leading lady -- this whirlwind of opinions and judgments. What I like is she's very complex, almost unlikable; then, as the play progresses, she peels away this armor she has built . . . and you find someone who suddenly knows nothing."

Cole Porter, the musical match for Barry's sophistication, set Lord's descent into the human race to song -- nine of them -- for a 1956 movie remake, High Society, and because Louis Armstrong was available to jazz up the title tune, the setting was shifted to Newport at festival high-tide -- but an authentic Philadelphian was still hired to Lord over the proceedings: Grace Kelly, singing, sorta (at least one whole stanza of Porter's Oscar-nominated "True Love").

Since Errico's range goes well beyond eight musical bars, the Porter estate threw open its portfolio of show songs from everything except Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate. Then, adapter Kopit, director Christopher Renshaw, producer Lauren Mitchell (along with Robert Gailus, Hal Luftig, Richard Samson, Dodger Endemol Theatricals in association with Bill Haber) and musical director Paul Gemignani hit the archives, scrumptiously plucking those Porter pearls that amplified and animated all of the Lords, including the enlarged roles of Tracy's estranged parents (Daniel Gerroll and Lisa Banes) and her skirt-chasing Uncle Willie (John McMartin).

Following icons is not just Errico's minefield. It has also been a risky proposition for the suitors who've gathered before the Tracy Lord pedestal, and the story line is still a matter of her ferreting out the true love. Here that question is, merrily, a multiple choice among C.K. Dexter Haven (the torch-toting Husband No. 1), George Kittredge (the nouveau riche stuffed shirt with whom she is now altar bound) and Mike Connor (the scandal-sheet scribe giving her serious second thoughts about charging down the aisle again).

"Yes, it's daunting," allows Daniel McDonald, who (after Joseph Cotten, Cary Grant and Bing Crosby) is the next-up Dexter, "but what was I supposed to do? Not do the role?" He says a big help in overcoming this heritage hurdle has been Robert Neff Williams, who "does dialect and speech at Juilliard, and he's great about finding the period, finding the rhythm, finding the diction that actually raises you to a different class. That, in itself, helps." Stephen Bogardus has just as intimidating a role -- the smitten newshound -- trailing Van Heflin, an Oscar-winning James Stewart and Frank Sinatra in the part: "I'm not going to be doing any Jimmy Stewart -- the only thing we share is an alma mater [Princeton]. I hate the idea of living up to people's expectations. We're our own thing, and I'm having a ball with just that."

In contrast to the above, Marc Kudisch has less of a sweat playing the also-ran Kittredge -- and not entirely because Frank Fenton, John Howard and John Lund came before him. "George was not a character who created a great impression," he says, "but now he has been reconstructed as a very specific type in the context of all these people -- the new American icon coming through in the late thirties, the young Democrat who eventually becomes the Republican -- so I'm hoping I surprise people." All that, and the one song he's allowed is the perfect anthem for his character: "I Worship You," cut from Fifty Million Frenchmen before it got to Broadway and now the new Porter tune in town.

If High Society meets its high expectations, chances are excellent that Kudisch's Kittredge will have a lot of company worshipping at the altar of Tracy Lord.