Landmark Musicals is staging a spirited revival of the classic, expertly directed by Zane Barker.
In Porter’s version, egomaniacal actor and director Fred Graham decides to stage “The Taming of the Shrew,” casting his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, as Katharine, “the shrew,” and taking the part of Petruchio himself. Their sexually charged and tempestuous relationship explodes on stage, blurring the lines between Shakespeare’s play and the life of the actors staging the play. Fed up with her ex-husband’s philandering, Lilli decides to leave the show. However, because her departure would entail the financial ruin of the show and Graham owes money to a homicidal mobster, she is unable to depart when two gangsters come to collect. To keep an eye on Lilli and make sure she does not quit, the gangsters don Elizabethan garb and join the show.
But the silly plot is the least interesting part of this entertaining play. What makes “Kiss Me, Kate” a classic and this production so great is Porter’s music, superbly performed by 12 very talented musicians led by musical director Darby Fegan.
Although Porter was classically trained, his music is deeply influenced by popular music and especially jazz. The best parts of “Kiss Me, Kate” are only tenuously related to the plot. For instance, Act 2 opens with the cast relaxing outside the theater on a sultry day in Baltimore. After one of the actors begins rhythmically drumming, bass and sax join in, followed by Paul’s singing, “It’s too darn hot.” The song is so good it’s hard to keep still, and soon the ensemble is engaged in a brilliant dance sequence, expertly choreographed by Louis and Courtney Giannini. Another wonderful dance sequence occurs during the song, “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” as Bianca’s three suitors compete for her hand in marriage.
While the quality of the acting in the Landmark production is generally high, the singing is superlative. Best of all is Amy Poland as Lilli, whose operatic voice is exquisite. Her counterpart, Erick Seelinger, is also an excellent vocalist.
Like Stephen Sondheim and very few other composers, Cole Porter wrote both lyrics and music, and “Kiss Me, Kate” is infused with his intelligence and wit. One of the musical’s most famous numbers is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” performed by the two gangsters. Porter wrote this song more for its comic value and wit than for its musical finesse. While this number might go on a little too long – every time you think it’s over the two gangsters reappear and sing some more – it’s certainly an audience favorite.
“Kiss Me, Kate” is playing through March 26 at the Rodey Theatre at the University of New Mexico. Call 453-8844 or go to landmarkmusicals.org to make reservations.