Glorious Cole Porter score, fabulous cast elevate troublesome plot of ‘Kiss Me Kate’
There are several very good reasons to see the Marriott Theatre’s staging of “Kiss Me Kate.” You’ll see a marvelous musical — if you can ignore the plot and wholly focus on Cole Porter’s music and the spectacular choreography Alex Sanchez creates for director Johanna McKenzie Miller’s staging.
But that plot (book by Sam and Bella Spewack) largely lifted from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” is a problem.
The good news is that the cast delivers the musical numbers to showstopping effect; it is difficult to imagine all-hands-on-deck production numbers better than those that “Kiss Me Kate” pulls off.
Set in 1948, the show-within-a-show centers on stage star Lilli Vanessi (Susan Moniz). Lilli is with a traveling troupe staging “The Taming of the Shrew,” playing Katharine, the titular shrew, opposite her ex-husband Fred Graham (Larry Adams), who is directing the show and co-starring as Petruchio, tamer of the alleged shrew.
The company also includes pragmatic bombshell Lois Lane (Alexandra Palkovic). Lois plays Kate’s insipid, much-wooed little sister Bianca in “Shrew.” Lois is also an actor “off-stage,” affecting a breathy-voiced Marilyn Monroe ditziness when there’s a man in the vicinity she wants to manipulate.
In Shakespeare’s play, Petruchio is a misogynist boor determined to bring Kate to heel. Fred is Petruchio’s modern-day counterpart, oozing ego and not above ad-libbing a spanking scene in “Shrew.”
As matters heat up, we are to conclude that both Lilli and Fred secretly still love each other, although it’s difficult to buy into this; he really is a jerk and she’s clearly got a double-digit IQ lead on him.
But if you’ve got to put up with a mess of hooey to get to numbers like the spectacular “Too Darn Hot” (led by a showstopping Jonathan Butler-Duplessis) and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (Lillian Castillo and Shea Coffman as gangsters making you wish vaudeville was still thriving), forsooth and for sure, it’s worth it.
McKenzie Miller has Adams finding the funny in Fred/Petruchio’s utter lack of self-awareness. When Petruchio swaggers like a peacock on steroids through “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua,” it’s with an over-the-top macho-man bluster that’s impossible not to laugh at.
The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches. As Bianca’s suitor Lucentio/Lois’ boyfriend Bill Calhoun, Daniel May floats through their duets with swoony grace. Allison Blackwell launches the big opening number — “Another Op’nin, Another Show” — with the glamor and roar the number demands.
Set designer Scott Davis manages the tricky business of creating both on- and off-stage worlds in the round, no small feat. And Theresa Ham’s colorful costumes brightly capture the silhouettes of the era.
Kate’s final monologue in “Shrew” has always been — problematic, to use the current word for it. In it, she states that women are “bound to serve, love and obey” their husbands, because a husband is “thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign…” you get the idea. It’s delivered largely in song here (“I Am Ashamed that People Are So Simple”), with Moniz making it delightfully unclear as to whether Lilli actually means it.
In “Shrew,” Kate’s final words are all about succumbing to Petruchio. In “Kiss Me Kate,” Moniz makes Kate’s last moments about the love of the theater, not necessarily her ex-husband. It goes a long way toward solving one of the show’s thorniest problems. But in spite of the text as much as because of it, McKenzie Miller makes “Kiss Me Kate” entertaining.