Cole Porter is clearly one of the best lyricists in the history of musical theater, and Kiss Me Kate is by far one of his best works. The words jump and skip across the page and meet his music midair.
So, yeah, the bar is set high. Happily for us this holiday season, Shakespeare Theatre Company clears that bar and pole-vaults over it with this boisterous production.
From the moment you hear “Another Opening, Another Show” lustily sung by Zonya Love as Hattie and backed up by the ensemble, you know you’re in for a good night: random little groups of ‘players’ and ‘crew’ coalesce from casually wandering about the ‘backstage’ to form a good old-fashioned showstopper of a number, ending in the opening night audience going wild. That’s just the first song in the first act, folks. And it gets better and better.
For those of you unfamiliar with this musical, the story hinges on newly divorced actors Lilli (Christine Sherrill) and Fred (Douglas Sills), putting on a performance of Taming Of The Shrew, Shakespeare’s masterpiece comedy of a warring couple. The show is a mirror image of itself, with backstage scenes and onstage scenes, and it’s peopled with some wonderful secondary characters, such as the seductive Lois (Robyn Hurder), her host of suitors, and a pair of gangsters intent on collecting a gambling debt from Fred. Comedy meets musical meets Shakespeare at a big old Cole Porter party.
In a lesser production, this can jumble into a mishmash, with well-known songs and dances running into each other nonstop, but this production is so finely tuned and so well performed you’ll wish Cole had written more.
Even if you’ve never seen the show before, there are songs you already know. “So In Love” is the very epitome of a torch song, beautifully rendered by Christine Sherrill, the woman has a vocal range of, oh, about forty octaves or so. For “I Hate Men”, the audience applauded both Ms Sherrill and the orchestra into submission, at one point stopping the action to cheer her on at a pause in the song.
As the swaggering Fred, Douglas Sills can’t be bested for comic timing: an errant plate, left leaning against a chair by one of the servants, became an ad hoc tympani in an exasperated tirade. That’s the sign of a confidant actor: use an onstage goof-up to good advantage.
There are several folks onstage with good reason to be confident. As Lois/Bianca, Robyn Hurder steamed up the house with “Tom, Dick, or Harry” then nearly brought down the house with “Always True to You In My Fashion”, easily leaving the crowd begging for more with her multiple encores. Clyde Alves, Bianca’s Lucentio/Bill Calhoun counters her with envious gymnastic and dance skills in the number “Bianca.”
The maxim for musicals of the golden age is always open the second act with a big dance number and the ensemble (lead dancer was uncredited) doubled down with the sultry, syncopated powerhouse “Too Darn Hot.”
And sure to not be outdone, Bob Ari and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod as a pair of gangsters decked out in spats and malapropisms, brought the right combination of lowball humor and vaudeville skills to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
KISS ME, KATE
November 17 – January 10, 2016
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
Tickets: $44 – $118
Tuesdays thru Sundays
As to the design of the show, it’s just topnotch from top to bottom and back to the top again. Costumes by Alejo Vietti are a wonderful synthesis of 1940s glamour and medieval Italian, with a little bit of Shakespearean color thrown in: sounds like a lot, but the right notes have been picked out of this symphony of styles, and even the dressed-down rehearsal costumes of the chorines look spiffy.
Everyone brings their A game to the design table: sets by James Noone are like a huge dollhouse, with towering two story interiors of pastel dressing rooms, a gritty backstage, an even grittier exterior, Italian villas, and thirty foot tall vaudeville curtains sliding soundlessly across the stage. The one hiccup for me at first was the center fountain in that Italian villa’s garden, which looked suspiciously like a hot tub until choreographer Michele Lynch surprised us by- nope, can’t tell you.
Also surprising is the extraordinarily high level of dance skills shown by the company: tapdancing, gymnastics, ballet and modern are all fused together, and sometimes exhibited by the same dancers simultaneously. If the choreography is particularly fine, it’s in part because Ms. Lynch has assembled some fantastic dancers who really know their stuff.
It is, in short, a grand show, thanks to Mr. Cole Porter and team all those years ago and now thanks to director Allan Paul and his fine team of professionals both backstage and onstage. They more than earned the standing ovation on opening night.
First Man the Gangster, in his Brooklynese accent, sums the show up perfectly near the end of Act Two: “It’s enchantin’ and vivashus, an’ calculaded to please even the most discernin’ awdience.”
Kiss Me, Kate . Music and lyrics by Cole Porter . Book by Samuel and Bella Spewack . Directed by Alan Paul . Featuring Christine Sherrill, Douglas Sills, Robyn Hurder, Clyde Alvers, Bob Ari, Raymone Jaramillo McLeod, Patrick Ryan Sullivan, T. Oliver Reid, Zonya Love, Bev Appleton, Harry A. Winter and Elliot Dash, Brandon Bieber, Con O’Shea-Creal, Jay Adriel, Kristen Smith Davis, Susan Derry, Carl Draper, Heidi Kershaw, Monette McKay, Eliza Ohman, Alfie Parker, Jr, Olivie Russell, Stephanie Bissonnette, Kevin Michael Raponey and Wood Van Meter.
Choreography: Michele Lynch . Music Director/Orchestrator: Doug peck, Associate Music Director/Conductor: James Cunningham . Additional Dance Music Arrangements: Michael Dansicker . Scenic Designer: James Noone . Costumer Desigher: Alejo Vietti . Lighting Designer: Paul MIller . Sound Designer: Justin Stasiw . Fight Director: David Leong . Literary Manager/Dramaturg: Drew Lichtenberg . Head of Voice and Text: Ellen O’Brien . Assistant Director: Kevin Place . Assistant Choreographer: Patch David . Production Stage Manager: Joseph Smeiser . Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski . Assistant Stage Manager: Maria Tejada . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.