Porter Done to Order
The touring production of Kiss Me, Kate at the Buell Theatre offers many pleasures, one of the foremost being Rachel York's dazzling performance as Kate. The musical was first shown on Broadway in 1948. It's a sexy romp, an assemblage of brilliant songs (the show represented Cole Porter's triumphant return to Broadway after years of wandering in the creative wilderness), a literate take on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and a joyous homage to theater itself along with the actors, dressers, stagehands and hangers-on who make it happen.
An estranged couple -- both of them in their different ways equally vain and overbearing -- are putting on a production of Shrew. He's the director and also plays Petruchio; she's Lilli Vanessi, starring as Kate. Their stormy relationship parallels that of Shakespeare's duo. There's a subplot involving minxy blonde Lois Lane, who teases her real-life suitors as relentlessly as her character, Bianca, teases her wooers in Shakespeare's play.
Thanks to an ingenious, fluid set design by Robin Wagner, we get to watch the action backstage, outside the theater, in the dressing rooms and on the boards. The book is by Sam and Bella Spewack and contains snatches of Shakespearean dialogue and Shakespearean-style ad lib, as well as a lot of clever banter. There are a few comments that must have been interjected by later hands than the Spewacks', though. "Guns don't kill people...," begins a right-wing general sententiously. "We do," chime in the two armed hoods who've been dogging the production.
Kiss Me, Kate floats on the strength of its musical numbers. There isn't a dud in the lot, and together they testify to Cole Porter's genius. There's the intensely clever word-spinning of Petruchio's "I've Come to Wed It Wealthily in Padua," in which "fret and fuss" rhymes with "Vesuvius" and "Padua" with "lad you are" (also "mad" and "cad you are"). There are several terrific theater songs: "We Open in Venice" and "Another Opening, Another Show"; Bianca's ingenious "Tom, Dick and Harry"; the smoky, slithery interlude "Too Darn Hot"; and the lyrical "So in Love." For the most part, these musical gems get the treatment they deserve from the talented cast at the Buell. Jenny Hill is a delightful Lois/Bianca with a strong voice, and she's frequently backed up by three lithe young male dancers, including Jim Newman as Lucentio. Newman really comes into his own when he sings "Bianca" in the second act, swinging hand over hand across the set to reach his beloved. The two hoods, who eventually find themselves converted by the sheer verbal power of the Bard, are played by Michael Arkin and Richard Poe, who manage to extract every hint of hilarity from "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."
Now on to Rachel York. The woman's a wonder: beautiful in that distinct-featured way that carries to the farthest row of a large auditorium, spirited, full of passion and joie de vivre, and with an extraordinary vocal range. Her "I Hate Men" growls deep in her chest; her voice soars on "Wunderbar" and she produces an incandescent coloratura for her operatic duet with a descending dove (you have to be there). So what is this glorious creature doing with Rex Smith's Fred/Petruchio, who's an altogether slighter and more peevish creation with a severely limited voice? In the second act, baritone Chuck Wagner enters as Harrison Howell, the U.S. general whom Lilli/Kate, disgusted with Fred, plans to marry. The two sing "From This Moment On." It's a comic rendition, but if you close your eyes for a few seconds and listen, you realize that Wagner's is the voice you want to hear accompanying York's.
This version of Kiss Me, Kate won several Tonys (so, for that matter, did the original), including awards for director Martin Blakemore and for Don Sebesky's orchestrations. It's choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, who's added some cheery dancing, including a number in which the women in the chorus appear to be stomping grapes in a huge cask, surrounded by appreciative men. There's a wonderful moment preceding this when the men take off the women's shoes and slide their stockings sexily down their legs (actually, there's a lot of leg, garter and stocking action in the entire show). Some of the musical numbers, however, go on too long, in particular Bianca's enumeration of her many lovers in "Always True to You," and there are several false endings when a song appears to be coming to its close, the applause begins, and the singer promptly launches into a few more verses.
There is one central problem with Kiss Me, Kate: the plot. As I get older, I find The Taming of the Shrew more and more troubling. No matter how you present it, what you have at bottom is the story of a man taming a bad-tempered woman through force and deprivation. For decades, most directors have tried to soft-pedal this angle, although I've seen at least one production in which the director faced the problem head-on and gave the production a slightly pornographic, sadomasochistic edge. This version of Kiss Me, Kate has Kate giving as good as she gets, and it takes pains to show that the two brawlers really do love each other. There's also a specific verbal jab at men who think it's manly to hit women, plus a delightful bit of debunkery late in the show that I won't spoil by describing for you. But for all that, there are still uneasy moments. And it really would help if Petruchio were played by an actor warm-blooded and exciting enough to make all the punching and swearing seem sexy.
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