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Cinema casts a long shadow over 'The Philadelphia Story'

These days, young classical musicians head straight to the CD shelf to listen to what the pros have done before they dare to develop their own interpretation of a piece. Similarly, I think some of the young cast members of The Philadelphia Story at the UA spent more time watching the classic film version of the play than internalizing their characters.

To some degree, this is inevitable. Philip Barry tailored the role of 1930s socialite Tracy Lord specifically to the personality and style of Katharine Hepburn. It was Hepburn who starred in the original 1939 Broadway production, Hepburn who starred in the 1940 movie, and Hepburn who has haunted the role ever since, despite later versions (including a musical) featuring other actresses.

And Tracy Lord is to some degree Kate Hepburn: assertive, haughty, the strangely magnetic daughter of a privileged family. In The Philadelphia Story, Tracy is within 24 hours of marrying George Kittredge, an executive with working-class roots and a certain lack of polish. Into her family's mansion intrude reporter Mike Connor and photographer Liz Imbrie; Tracy's brother, Sandy, has worked out a deal with the publisher of Destiny magazine to let Mike and Liz cover the wedding if Destiny will spike an article about Mike and Tracy's philandering father.

As always in an urbane comedy of manners like this, social and romantic complications ensue, especially given the presence of Tracy's ex-husband and current sparring partner, the grandly named CK Dexter Haven, and her scheming little sister, Dinah.

Barry couldn't quite bring himself to burn his upper-crust characters because he loves them too much. He lets them satirize themselves briefly in the screwball first act, as they put on ridiculous airs for the reporters, but it's ultimately the blue-collared George and the pink-at-the-center Mike who turn out to be the real snobs as Tracy stumbles fetchingly through a 24-hour moral education.

The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre used to be something of a finishing school mainly for graduate students, but program cutbacks now require it to use almost entirely undergrad casts. With so many promising but inexperienced actors on stage, this season's productions have been uneven. That's true of The Philadelphia Story, even despite the watchful eye of Samantha K. Wyer, the best stage director in town.

On opening night last week, the first scene didn't seem at all lived-in; the actors were more focused on technical issues than addressing their character dynamics. Gradually, though, the actors found their groove, and began delivering performances of greater involvement. By the end, things were cooking nicely.

They weren't following original recipes, though. Sarah Hayes didn't play Tracy Lord so much as she played Katharine Hepburn, or, actually, it was more like playing Cate Blanchett playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. Similarly, suave Dane Corrigan filled the role of Dexter by channelling Cary Grant. (In fairness, this is a version with more backbone of a characterization Corrigan offered to good effect in The Rivals, so maybe this is just his natural demeanor.)

Celebrity impersonation like this can be amusing, often comforting, and in the case of Tracy Lord unavoidable, but ultimately it gives no idea of what an actor can do without hewing to a famous model. At the same time, in a beloved old work like this, an audience member may read more celebrity impersonation into a performance than is really there. Ian Delaney, for example, played Mike without a trace of Jimmy Stewart mannerisms, yet in my mind I kept overlaying Stewart's inflections upon Delaney's easygoing, down-to-earth delivery. And I haven't seen the movie in 30 years.

Through the course of all this what went missing most seriously was a real sexual chemistry between Hayes and her love/hate interests. There's strong textual evidence that Tracy remains a virgin even after her first marriage, but, whether that's true or not, her sexual frustrations and urges never fully manifested themselves here.

Clay Froning played Sandy with devilishly arched-toward-the-outside Jack Nicholson eyebrows and a sense of fun, but playwright Barry doesn't give the character much depth. It was the Liz of Maggie Robbins, natural and lively, who gave the evening one of its first real sparks.

Not quite the first, though, for Shawna Cormier, as young Dinah, carried the first scene almost on her own and just got better and better as the evening progressed. This was no spoiled little rich girl; Cormier made Dinah mischievous and open and big-hearted and overblown in the manner of precocious teenagers. Even back in her chorus-girl days a couple of years ago, Cormier was a scene-stealer without ever upstaging her fellow actors; she is always a centered, charismatic performer, even though until now she's never been awarded a role with a lot of lines (she's tended to hover, almost mutely). Cormier is making the most of this opportunity, apparently her last at the UA.

The sets and costumes are, as usual at Arizona Repertory Theatre productions, handsome (except for a couple of probably intentionally hideous dresses in the first act). Despite my reservations, going out to see this Philadelphia Story live still beats staying home alone and watching the video. I wish the cast members had realized that, too.

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