Cole Porter is one of the supreme masters of innuendo, his canon is unmatched in the rich and varied American Songbook. He arguably reached the apogee of his prowess in the words and music for “Kiss Me, Kate.” Coupled with the remarkable book by Sam and Bella Spewack, the result is a gem musical that resonates with each interpretation.
In the hands of director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey, the Old Globe production sparkles.
The multi-level plot involves a once-married thespian couple who spar in the midst of their production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” An impressive number of subplots are sprinkled through the evening, leaving the audience fully engaged as the action moves backstage and onstage. The most precarious moments are when the backstage machinations find their way onstage, so that the two lead characters are essentially playing two roles at once.
Anastasia Barzee plays Lilli Vanessi and the titular Kate with aplomb. Her confidence is undermined when she begins to succumb to the appeal of he ex-husband Fred Graham, played admirably by Mike McGowan. McGowan evokes the right balance of vulnerability and machismo as he circles Lilli in their adjoining dressing rooms. Scenic designer Alexander Dodge is to be commended for the fluid means by which the action shifts from backstage to onstage. Fabio Toblini’s costumes evoke the Italian setting of the show within a show, and afford the limber dancers plenty of flexibility in their athletic dance sequences.
In perhaps the quintessential musical openings, the production opens with “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.” Literally setting the stage for the evening, the cast assembles in Baltimore for the pre-Broadway run. Other musical highlights include “Tom, Dick or Harry” as Bianca/Lois Lane (the exuberant Megan Sikora) fiddles between suitors in a bravura dance sequence. The Act Two opener “Too Darn Hot” also shimmers.
A standing favorite in our house is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” wherein the two gangster heavies find themselves revealing the tip that they learned by being thrust into the Bard’s production. Porter’s clever wordplay is in full effect as the newly erudite gangsters trade their pistols for top hats and canes.
The only song that shows its age is the penultimate number when Kate bemoans “I Am So Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.”
I am ashamed the women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek to rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
So hold your temper, wife, and meekly put
Your hand ‘neath the sole of your husband’s foot,
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready,
May it do him ease.
But Barzee as Kate/Lilli is able to evoke the action in a sufficiently modern manner that belies the lyrics, giving Fred/Petruchio appropriate comeuppance.
Kudos also to Kris Kukul as music director, the orchestrations are vibrant and keep the evening bubbling. This is classic American music theater, with Cole Porter at his best.