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Kiss Me, Kate

Breathtaking Musical and a Good Shrew, Too

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, Book by Samuel and Bella Spewack
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, December 3, 2015, F–112&113(center stalls)
Directed by Alan Paul, Choreographed by Michele Lynch

The two mobsters in classic mobster dark gray pinstripe suits but wearing tophats and holding canes kick out their right legs as they sing in a spotlight against a red curtain
Second Man (Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, left) and First Man (Bob Ari), mobsters forced to participate in a musical version of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, perform "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Kiss Me, Kate. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Writing just now my harsh review of The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) prompted me to resurrect a review of STC's production of Kiss Me, Kate this past winter, a review waylaid in the shuffle of this mortal coil.

Also prompting this revisit—and furthering a sense of context I'll be addressing here—was the results this week of the annual Helen Hayes Awards, the Tony equivalent for the Capital Region's theater scene. That scene is a vibrant one, and with more than 200 eligible shows in 2015, the competition is stiff (my own favorite production, Faction of Fools' Our Town netted only one nomination). STC dominated with its original staging of Yael Farber's Salomé (seven wins, including Outstanding Play) while Kiss Me, Kate landed three wins in categories that concur with my original notes.

"This season has been largely about new experiences," STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn wrote in the program notes for The Taming of the Shrew (before the Helen Hayes awards were announced). He's right. Long critical of STC as staid in general and archaic when it comes to producing its namesake playwright (the company has been oh-so-'70s in conceptual infatuation and misguided in attention to textual veracity), I applaud the creative output of the current season just ending. After Salomé and Kiss Me, Kate came the intelligently hilarious doubleheader production of The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound, then Ron Daniels' richly relevant take on Othello, and Headlong's searing touring production of 1984. The Ed Sylvanus Iskandar–helmed Shrew promised to be a great cap to the season and thus the production I was most looking forward to. That it crumbled under its own psychological weight and misogyny (this from the company that received the region's highest accolades for Salomé, its entry in the Women's Voices Theater Festival last fall) not only was a great disappointment, it left me yearning to revisit the one production of the season I initially approached as I would cotton candy, seeing it as a substanceless concoction that evaporates even before you swallow.

Boy, was I wrong. Kiss Me, Kate may be confection Shakespeare, but Cole Porter's music and lyrics merit its place as an enduring classic. Meanwhile, Samuel and Bella Spewack's book, mirroring the plot of The Taming of the Shrew in a story about two veteran thespians staging a musical production of Taming of the Shrew, has lasting legs of is own as an upper-tier entry in the long line of shows about show business stretching from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to the current Broadway show involving Shakespeare, Something Rotten! The genius with Kiss Me, Kate, though, is turning the Petruchio and Kate counterparts, Fred and Lilli, into, essentially, Benedick and Beatrice counterparts, a one-time couple (divorced in the musical) combating both each other and their own ongoing attraction to the other.

Porter scores big with great tunes and ever-clever lyrics, including "Tom, Dick, or Harry" and, of course, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." That last can be a tiresome piece, but in context with the rest of the show it deserves its tag as a showstopper, performed by two mob thugs, identified in the cast list only as First Man and Second Man (recalling Shakespeare's own ID of the First and Second Lords in All's Well That Ends Well). Assigned to guarantee payment of a gambling debt, they become enmeshed in both the Fred-and-Lilli relationship as well as the staging of The Taming of the Shrew, and when they find themselves unexpectedly in the spotlight, they bring the house down.

The genius of this particular production is in the direction: Alan Paul at the helm, whose sure hand learned through previous stagings of both musicals and Shakespeare plays at STC results in an earnest and tightly paced production; and Michele Lynch doing the choreography, work that earned her one of the show's three Helen Hayes Awards. The highlight among a show full of them is "Too Darn Hot," which launches the second half of Kiss Me, Kate. James Noone's scene designs easily transition from the stage door to Ford's Theatre in Baltimore to the show's on-stage sets. For "Too Darn Hot" the cast and crew emerge in the back-stage area for a smoke break, casually engaging in various modes of relaxation: stretching, tossing a ball, juggling, cooling off with handheld fans. These natural movements seamlessly segue into dance, but as the dancing heats up, the choreography maintains the mood and modes of relaxation. Don't look for precision—though that is there: Instead, you appreciate the loose exuberance in the choreography that makes this song in particular, but the rest of Kiss Me, Kate, too, such a jazzy piecie visually as well as aurally.

Douglas Sills and Christine Sherrill are perfectly suitable as Fred and Lilli, though they lack the chemistry needed to make their addiction to each other completely believable. Bob Ari and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, meanwhile, are perfect as First Man and Second Man, respectively. They do have the benefit of playing tried-and-true archetypes, but as they snatch canes and soft-shoe their way through "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" they earn two encores through both verve and talent.

Nevertheless, Robyn Hurder as Lois Lane, who plays Bianca, is the performance that steals my heart. "Quite a set of pipes on Bianca," I wrote in my notebook, and I assure you I was referring to her vocals; although… Well, she is sexually alluring, too, and I especially remember her legs. And by that I mean, most assuredly, as a dancer. Whether she is doing tap, jazz, classical, or modern, Hurder leaves us breathless with every single number she dances. Her legs coupled with those pipes, Hurder turns in one of the great performances I experienced in 2015, and I am not alone in that assessment: she earned a Helen Hayes win for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a musical.

The third Helen Hayes award for Kiss Me, Kate went to Clyde Alves for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical with his performance as Bill Calhoun, Lois's reckless gambler boyfriend who uses Fred's name on his own gambling debt. Calhoun plays Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew, and Alves performs one of the show's most thrilling dances in "Bianca," scintillatingly graceful and athletic as he uses stage props of all heights and angles for his dance floor.

Dancers in various costumes dance in a backstage area.
It's "Too Darn Hot." The ensemble (including Robyn Hurder as Lois Lane, front right in green with Clyde Alves as Bill Calhoun) take a break outside the stage door that turns into a thrilling dance break in Shakespeare Thatre Company's production of Kiss Me, Kate. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Being a musical about a musical, Kiss Me, Kate operates in two different (albeit junctured) spheres, the back-stage plot and the staged one, "The Taming of the Shrew, conceived, directed, and also starring Fredric C. Graham, written by William Shakespeare." Obviously from the order of the principles in that playbill, Fred has produced an interpretation of Shakespeare's original text, but it still provides his unique perspective on the play, a perspective that gets rewritten on the fly when, after the curtain has already risen on the show, Lilli discovers that an order of flowers from Fred that ended up by happenstance in her hands were actually intended for Lois.

Layering the Fred-Lilli relationship on the portrayal of Petruchio and Kate certainly adds greater texture to Shakespeare's characters, as well drawn as they are in the original. Lilli's loathing of Fred is charging her every pore and broiling in her eyes as her Kate is contending with his Petruchio. Meanwhile, Fred is having to think fast on his feet bandying Lilli's anger beyond her portrayal of Kate, which makes for an endearing Petruchio. When he delivers Petruchio's "Thus have I politicly begun my reign" soliloquy, Graham as the beleaguered Fred playing Petruchio engages the Sidney Harman Hall audience in direct address, waiting attentively to hear from anybody who "knows better how to tame a shrew." It is one of the best renderings of that speech I've seen, even if a lot of Fred is part of the transmission.

Among Fred's notable alterations to Shakespeare's script is making Lucentio a friend of Petruchio rather than both being strangers in Padua. Gremio (Con O'Shea-Creal) is also as young as Lucentio and Hortensio (Brandon Bieber) among Bianca's suitors. Fred no doubt was thinking about the physical needs for three virile young men to trade off dancing with Bianca in "Tom, Dick, or Harry," and in 1948, when Kiss Me, Kate is set, he could not conceive of a Gremio-aged dancer keeping up with Calhoun. If Fred were re-conceiving the play today, he could return Gremio to his original age bracket and cast Mikhail Baryshnikov, a Gremio that would not only keep up but school the youngsters.

That would require re-mounting Kiss Me, Kate, of course. And why not? Like Shakespeare's play that inspired it, it's a musical very much anchored in the time of its composition; but like its progenitor, timeless, too.

Eric Minton
May 27, 2016

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