Kiss Me, Kate
Glendale Centre Theatre
There’s something about the genius of Cole Porter that, even in a modern world energized by such contemporary musicals as Next to Normal, Spring Awakening and Urinetown, raises his overworked sappy classics from corny to sublime. Unlike Rogers and Hammerstein’s real good clambakes and corn as high as an elephant’s eye, the smartness of Porter’s words and music, although chockfull of the snappy-patter and the usual silly Edward Everett Horton-y shenanigans of the time in which they were created, still hold up despite being part of the era before musical comedy gratefully evolved into musical theatre.
Sharply staged in the round at GCT by director Tom Robinson, this eleventy-zillionth production of musical comedy standard-bearer Kiss Me, Kate, which follows a regional theatre company staging Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew starring a set of quirky and inter-involved leading actors who seem to exhibit the same temperaments as the characters they portray, has the luck of being led by such a well-weathered old hand as Dink O’Neal. In the role Alfred Drake made famous, over-the-top and wincingly melodramatic producer/director/stage star Fred Graham, O’Neal manages to find the perfect blend between exaggerated theatricality and sweetly emotional moments, his face morphing from overly dramatic indignation to woebegone basset-houndliness to sincere lovestruck spurned suitor mode in the blink of a downbeat from musical director Steven Applegate’s pre-recorded orchestra.
Donna Cherry, as O’Neal’s fearsome Kate, is also an obvious musical veteran blessed with a spectacular voice, particularly smashing in a gorgeous rendition of Porter’s haunting ballad “So In Love.” Oddly however, the chemistry between O’Neal and Cherry in the musical’s notorious Taming of the Shrew-lifted battle scenes is pitch-perfect, but the romantic moments between them fall flat—perhaps because Cherry doesn’t seem to want to do much when not singing besides pouting, looking angry, or placing her hands on her hips.
Though saddled with one too many verses in their 11th-hour solo treat, Dean Ricca and Shawn Cahill are comedic ambrosia as those vociferous prison library-educated gangsters brushing up on their Shakespeare, and Alli McGinnis and Joey Elrose have some charmed moments as second-banana couple Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun—although in their hilarious “Tom, Dick or Harry” number featuring McGinnis backed by Elrose, Paul Reid and Drew Foronda, a somewhat longer pause might be needed between the words “Harry and “Dick” in these far less innocent days when the three names in question are jumbled in Porter-order. That much information about Tom we do not need to know—and there’s also something unintentionally funny in 2010 when three male dancers in pastel tights chant the phrase “Dick, Dick, Dick” as they perform their elevés.
Both Kate Ponzio and Clayton Farris grandly step out from the chorus, respectively, to lead the company in this production’s two clear show-stoppers, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” and “Too Darn Hot,” the latter spectacularly choreographed by Mark Knowles, particularly considering so many dancers must share such a small space. And speaking of sharing space, Tim Dietlein’s lighting also adds considerably to the illusion of size on the GCT stage, surely a far more creative task for the designer than the construction of his minimal set pieces calculated to stay sparse and short enough not to hamper audience sightlines.
That pre-recorded score also offers a strange challenge here. Porter gifted several songs in Kate with extra stanzas, so if the audience is howling for more of his wonderfully tongue-in-cheek lyrics (who else in a Shakespearean take-off could rhyme “If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the Coriolanus"), the performer(s) could return to the stage for an encore or two. Or three. Or four. In Applegate’s recording, every potential encore in included, so are executed whether the audience is cheering loudly or, as was the case the night this reviewer attended, dead asleep in the front row (another sightline test for theatre-in-the-round). The result is a Kate that lasts over three-and-a-half hours which, in the age of 90-minute intermissionless musicals, is a bit too much these days when pre-show margaritas are a given. Even Taming of the Shrew itself is often trimmed a tad.
Bottom line, though: No production of this musical, especially considering its backstage theme, works without an enthusiastic and energetic ensemble cast to populate it. Although cramped together on this stage and with a wide range of seasoning evident among Kate’s staggeringly large troupe of chorus boys and girls (as they were still called when this musical debuted on the last day of 1948), their work is the highlight of the evening. Perhaps someone should point out to that one best unnamed chorus member that even when performing a show in the round, there’s still a fourth wall to be maintained and that audience members are not to be stared back at or sought out for eye contact, but in general this massive 25-member company of players is a delight to behold.
It’s infectious for anyone in an audience to watch when this many (mostly) squeakily fresh-scrubbed and eager young actors can collectively stand around posing in silly Shakespearean costumes between production numbers, listening endlessly as the principals sing Porter’s numerous verses and in general carry on, and still manage to look as though they’re having such a good time.
This observation is easily exemplified by one rubber-faced kid with a goofy Joe E. Brown smile named Jeffrey Dolenar, whose obvious excitement to be part of this without ever once losing concentration or trying to pull his own focus, as well as his willingness to push himself just a little harder than the others in dance numbers, is what signals the emergence of a future great performer.
Although personally I am not usually a fan of theatre-in-the-round (as an observer, not a participant, which can be an exciting challenge), there’s something great about experiencing an old warhorse such as Kiss Me, Kate in such a venue as Glendale Centre Theatre, where even if one might think he or she is too sophisticated (ahem) for such pedestrian folly, the reactions and huge smiles of all the other patrons within sight can be humbling, even for someone as pompous as Fred Graham himself.
Kiss Me, Kate plays through Apr. 3 at the 63-year-old Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale; for tickets, call 818.244.8481. For more information, visit www.glendalecentretheatre.com