PLAYBILL BACKSTAGE by Starla Smith: Hobnobbing at High Society

News   PLAYBILL BACKSTAGE by Starla Smith: Hobnobbing at High Society Playbill Backstage stopped by the St. James Theatre for a quick cozy chat with the High Society family. The cast members, openly optimistic about their show, are riding high on audience enthusiasm. As for critics, maybe it's like the song says, '. . . just one of those things."

Playbill Backstage stopped by the St. James Theatre for a quick cozy chat with the High Society family. The cast members, openly optimistic about their show, are riding high on audience enthusiasm. As for critics, maybe it's like the song says, '. . . just one of those things."

The youngest member of the troup, 12-year-old Anna Kendrick (Dinah Lord), made her Broadway debut with High Society, and for her efforts the Portland, ME, native has already won a Theater World Award and been nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

Although her precocious portrayal drew critical raves, Kendrick denied that it's typecasting. "I wouldn't say she's just like me. She says some stuff that I would never say. She tells her mom the gossip that she's heard. She talks to Dexter like he's inferior. Like, I'm older than him, and at one point, I say, `Dexter darling, sit down, would you?' It's really weird. I feel really awkward doing it. Because I really respect him. Anyway, I don't keep secrets from my real mom."

As for reviews, Kendrick admits to looking at them. "Because it's my first show, and I can't help it. I don't know, it didn't bother me that much."

Melissa Errico's (Tracy Lord) dressing room is practically onstage, a half flight up a New Orleans like staircase and veranda, above the main stage area. Errico tackles the question before it's asked. "This is what I have to say to the press: `Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. Begin it well and serenely. This day is all that is good and fair. It is too dear with its hopes and invitations to waste a moment on the yesterdays.' That's Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it's written on my Celestial Seasonings teabox. Flavor -- Tension Tamer."

Her dressing room exudes a cheerful warmth. Pictures of her with her mother, another with her fiance, Patrick McEnroe, kissing her, an angel from her hairdresser, Robert Charles, a Matisse over the couch, and a few stuffed animals strewn about. Notes and numerous photos in elegant disarray grace her makeup mirror as well as the words "courage" and "beauty."

"This is what I wrote after the reviews came out -- my mantra to get by that freaking couple of days. Oh, that's Fay Wray, the girl from King Kong, but you don't need to know that. "It's the face, see that pout? I love that. We're working that. Did you see my lipstick? It's a complicated characterization that I'm working on," she chuckled. "Yes, I'm now getting my notes from my teabag and Fay Wray."

Errico admits that she's feeling a bit vulnerable after some of the reviews. "But I'm feeling like a trouper, feeling like getting on with it. I'm starting to pick up. Considering the amount of changes, I think we did a pretty damned good job during press week. Actually, it's just now ready to be reviewed. Des [McAnuff] said today, he's never frozen a show that late -- maybe just 24 hours before the press came. We were onstage memorizing."

Errico has started to vocalize with ahs, ees and oohs, a daily ritual that she repeats a hundred times, or until she hits a C-sharp. "I can't be thinking about what happened to us, what happened to the director, and what happened with some of our reviews. I'm just trying to trust the audiences, which are amazing, and look inside myself. And care a little less about what has manifested itself around me -- publicity wise -- because I certainly know what it's like to be celebrated in the press. Throughout my life, they're going to say good things and bad things, but I've got to be the common thread. I don't think I knew that before this. I don't think I actually realized that it's all just talk."

Recently Patti LuPone called Errico and invited her to dinner. "She'd been following all this," Errico explained. "so she took me out -- a total stranger -- and just told me about the disappointments and the ups and downs of being the toast of the town as Evita, all the bad reviews, and the way it all turned around in her favor eventually. But she described one night being in an apartment talking to a mouse that she'd meant to poison. And she was so confused and alone and a little lost in her life that she was having this conversation with a mouse. She said that's when she knew she had to pick it up and get a new attitude. Get over herself."

You can reach John McMartin's dressing area through Errico's side door. His room is spartan and calm, except for a divinely curved white chaise longue, just perfect for the actor who delights audiences as Uncle Willie, the deliciously amusing devotee of gin and ladies' backsides.

"No rituals before a show -- I don't do anything. There's no technique to pinching bottoms. Just a sense memory," the Tony-nominated McMartin mused. "Look at how old I am -- I just try to remember what it's like to have a few drinks and chase the ladies. And I never want to stop. It's an innate kind of naughtiness that's bubbles though all of us, and I get a chance to let it go. I tell all the ladies when I do this onstage, `Forgive me, it's just acting.' "

"I think Cole Porter would like this production. We're having a grand time with his music. And Uncle Willie is a joyous role. I don't know what the critics said. I don't want anything riding around in my brain when I go on stage. I just like to be free to enjoy what I'm doing."

When McMartin stops by Sardi's after the show, people often ask "Didn't you get enough gin on stage?"

"Vodka's my drink," he winked. "not gin. Because the juniper berry, my dear, is far too dangerous."

Upstairs two levels, Marc Kudisch's already entertaining a between-the-shows visitor, Beauty and the Beast's Deborah Gibson, with whom he played Gaston to her Belle in the Disney musical.

"I haven't seen High Society yet," Gibson said, "but I've met satisfied customers on the street. People always say it's a lot of fun. I'm actually out of Beauty and the Beast in five weeks, so I'll get to see Marc play George."

"Ah, George," Kudisch offered with a playfully dramatic sigh. "He's not a bad guy, but he is the wrong guy."

" I've met a lot of those," Gibson laughed. "Nice guy for someone else."

"Exactly," Kudisch agreed. Everybody knows the story. George is the big loser of the evening. "I even get hissed in this show sometime," he admitted.

"I'm going to bring eggs," Gibson teased. "That's something you've never gotten."

"Don't forget!" Kudisch reminded her as she ducked out the door. "There are a lot of men like George in the audience."

Kudisch might laugh about his character, but he is absolutely serious about his devotion to High Society. "I put my heart and soul into this show. I've been involved since the first reading. Look, I don't care what any reviewer had to say. Yes, I read some. It's a small community. If I didn't, somebody would call me and tell me anyway. So how do you avoid it? You can't. Now the question is, do you believe them? It's the old saying, `If you believe the bad, you've got to believe the good as well.' And our audiences are having a ball!"

If you're onstage, Daniel McDonald's dressing room is immediately stage left. If you're a visitor, he's to the right of the Stage Door. Just inside on the opposite wall hangs a white lifesaver with crimson red ropes, something his character, C.K. Dextor Haven, might have adored.

McDonald didn't read the reviews. "I read the long faces," he said philosophically. "I think the critics generally look at plays in the scheme of world theater and the timeline from the beginning of time to what theater's doing for us now. I think if we had reinvented High Society and made it like some kind of modern thing with Wall Street wealth, and given it a new twist, it would have been received in a way that said, `Oh, we're trying something new and that's interesting.' But we did a very faithful version of the film and put it on stage."

"Yes, we're more comfortable now with the show, but its concept has not changed. The people who come love that concept. They feel comfortable with the show, like it's an old leather chair they're familiar with and they love the music."

One member of High Society's family, Philip Barry, Jr., the playwright's son, recently died of cancer. His last outing was the opening night performance. Although he was very ill, he got up from his hospital bed to attend the festivities, then returned to the hospital.

"He was a great and wonderful spirit," McDonald recalled, "and very supportive of the show. He told all of us that his dad would have been proud of what we had done. What more could you want?"

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