In the local theater scene, we’re used to Circle Theatre resurrecting forgotten Broadway flops and mounting them with flash and dazzle. But Circle’s current production of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” is certainly not one of those neglected failures. This smart, rousing musical is one of the great ones. With lively direction by Bob Knuth, this witty, sexy romp is wonderful fun.
I was somewhat apprehensive that perhaps the 1948 classic might now seem dated or bloated, but this spirited production moves like a house afire. The show is chock full of scintillating Cole Porter hits like “From This Moment On” and “Always True to You in My Fashion.” The score is rich and varied, and the huge cast of 23 is certainly up to the challenge of the virtually non-stop numbers.
“Kiss Me, Kate” is a play within a play set during the out-of-town tryout of a Broadway-bound musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy “Taming of the Shrew.” Two once-married, now divorced musical theater actors – an egotist and a diva – are playing the roles of strutting Petruchio and feisty Kate. This battle of the sexes was supposedly inspired by acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne who, while never divorced, often had huge clashes backstage.
The talented leads’ voices blend in perfect harmony. Andy Baldeschwifer, playing Fred (Petruchio), is a superior singer and a solid comic actor with great timing.
The elegance of Jennie Sophia is supported by her lovely voice as Lilli (Katharine). She shows her versatility, spewing rage, in her solo “I Hate Men.”
When they sing “Wunderbar” from an operetta they once starred in together we see that although they fight, they clearly still love one another.
The plot is wafer-thin and that’s refreshing. Fred is attracted to a flirty, daffy blond in the show, wonderfully played by lovely Rachel Quinn. When Lilli discovers that a bouquet she’s received was actually intended for Lois, she storms off to play her “shrew” role with more than her usual vigor.
Lois is the object of affection of a fellow performer, ably played by Wes Drummond. She scolds him for his constant gambling in their comic duet “Why Can’t You Behave?”
Knuth is such an inventive director that despite the nearly 20 scene changes, the pace never flags. All transitions occur swiftly and unobtrusively.
Due to mistaken identity, a pair of comic Damon Runyon-esque mob enforcers, hilariously played by John Roeder and Tommy Bullington, show up with guns in hand to collect a gambling debt from Fred. They end up in “Taming of the Shrew” disguised as Petruchio’s servants to keep an eye on Lilli so she doesn’t jump ship and abandon the show.
These two hoodlums nearly stop the show with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” The lyrics, employing a catalog of Shakespeare titles, are a riot. (“If she says your behavior is heinous/ Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus’.”)
The second act opener, “Too Darn Hot,” has little to do with the plot but it’s a raucous, thrilling production number. Kevin Bellie’s choreography is consistently terrific.
Noah Sullivan plays the pompous, MacArthur-like Army General to whom Lilli’s engaged.
Baptista, the wealthy merchant father of Katharine and Bianca, is portrayed by Kirk Swenk. Christine Ronna is Lilli’s dresser.
Unfortunately there are too many performers to single out everyone. It’s a strong, talented ensemble.
This was Cole Porter’s “comeback” musical, as he’d been burned by a couple of flops and was believed to be a has-been. “Kiss Me, Kate” won the very first Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for more than two years.
Some of us may recall the 1953 MGM version of this musical, which was released in 3D. Cole Porter’s often risque lyrics had to be cleaned up for the Hollywood censors.
Patti Roeder’s costumes are splendid, capturing both periods, the late ’40s and the Elizabethan era. Some of the outfits are a scream, such as a fur-trimmed garment that makes Kirk Swenk look like he’s got two dead raccoons sewn on his shoulders.
The band is composed of Ken Jones (keyboard), Ryan Hobbs (trumpet), Lara Regan (clarinet/saxophone), and Kevin Brown (drums.) Carolyn Brady Riley is the musical director.
Everyone seemed to do well with Porter’s often tongue-twisting lyrics, but at times the band did drown out the singers.
If you have someone on your holiday list who is hard to buy for, take ’em to see this highly enjoyable musical. Though it’s not set in the holidays, it’s a wonderfully uplifting experience you can share together.
Knuth also designed the adaptable set, with huge flaps and a large “wagon” that quickly rolls scenes on and off.
Rebecca Miles-Steiner is the stage manager. Gary C. Echelmeyer designed the lighting that bathes some scenes in lovely soft colors.
The production runs two-and-one-half hours with one intermission.
“Kiss Me, Kate” isn’t too bawdy for older kids. They will enjoy it but will need to be prepared in terms of how attitudes have changed regarding domestic violence as comic relief. Few of us now find delight in the taming of a strong-willed woman.