In the program notes for Skylight Music Theatre’s production of "Kiss Me Kate," director Ray Jivoff does not apologize for Cole Porter’s biggest Broadway hit, which premiered in 1948. He writes, "Dated? Sure. Does it mine comedy from old gender stereotypes? Yup. Is the battle of the sexes based on old-fashioned sexual politics? Absolutely."
So, the Skylight’s last show of the season – and the last one under Jivoff’s tenure as artistic director – is one of those classic musicals that is grandfathered in to contemporary theater lineups as a quaint snapshot of another, less enlightened time, redeemed by some great music. And in that context, the lively production, running through June 16 at the Broadway Theatre Center, is a success. It’s also a reminder of why they don’t write musicals like this anymore.
The first thing you notice about "Kiss Me Kate" is that it’s on the cusp of musicals that really use songs to move the plot forward. In fact, two of the most memorable melodies, "Another Op’nin, Another Show" and "Too Darn Hot," are simply used to start each act, set the scene and give the ensemble an excuse to do a lot of singing and dancing – mostly for fun.
"Another Op’nin" introduces the audience to all the moving parts behind an off-Broadway show, from the ghost light and the call board to costume racks, dancers warming up and the ever-vigilant stage manager and her clipboard (a delightfully organized Haley Haupt ). "Too Darn Hot" shows the cast playing and flirting with each other, out of costume in the alley behind the theater. Sean Anthony Jackson leads the chorus performers in some ambitious jumps, spins and onstage percussion. Both of these numbers were filled with well executed and challenging choreography, by Amy Brinkman, but both lacked vocal energy on opening night and felt only tangentially connected to the show.
The plot, loosely based on the backstage bickering of Ten Chimneys residents and Broadway luminaries Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, focuses on a feuding former couple playing opposite one another in the lead roles in a very 1940s version of Shakespeare’s "Taming of the Shrew." Divorced for a year but clearly not over their exes, the actor/director Fred Graham (a marvelous Andrew Varela) dallies with an ambitious chorus girl, Lois Lane (Kaylee Annable), a brassy redhead with legs that go all the way down to the floor and ambition that knows no bounds.
Rana Roman is Lilli Vanessi, a star recently returned from Hollywood who courts a powerful but cartoonish presidential advisor (Jonathan Gillard Daly, decked out as General MacArthur), while slumming it with her former husband and a traveling troupe.
Like Katherine and Petruchio in Shakespeare’s original "Shrew," Lilli and Fred have a love/hate relationship onstage and an equally stormy time sharing adjoining dressing rooms. As things escalate on one side of the footlights, it influences their behavior on the other; insults, tantrums and fisticuffs ensue.
Fortunately the two actors are presented as equals in this production – alike in their flaws, their petty bickering, their physical attacks on one another (masked as stage violence) and their reluctant affection. Both have exquisite singing voices, which they show off in many solos and duets. (They even breathe some charm into the silly "Wunderbar.") And the petite Roman gives as good as she gets in slaps, stomps, punches and taunts, cleverly designed by fight director Christopher Elst, before being hauled offstage, flung over Varela’s shoulder as he spanks her for misbehaving, in front of the audience.
The spanking is a running joke in Act Two and one that "smacks" of the time "Kiss Me Kate" was first conceived. A common trope in movies from the ’30s to the ’60s, unruly girlfriends and wives were routinely paddled with hands, hairbrushes and even a coal shovel in John Wayne’s "McLintock!" Much like the phrase "I’m free, white and 21" – another standard in black and white pictures that sneaks its way into the "Kate" script – these outdated elements are toned down but not removed completely, so audiences may wince.
But true to his anti-revisionist director’s note, Jivoff’s production is mostly played for frothy fun and laughs – and there’s plenty of both. The play-within-a-play looks delightfully like a technicolor film that substitutes bouncy dance numbers and physical comedy for Shakespearean realism. The flat, painted sets (scenic design by Robert Little) make Padua look like a story book illustration.
Tea-length gowns in vibrant jewel tones leave plenty of room for high kicks (costume design by Jason Orlenko), and the gentlemen’s waistcoats are perfectly color coordinated to match their dance partners. And though there’s no swordplay in this Elizabethan tale, there are plenty of jousts and jabs with suggestively shaped salamis and sausage links. To give the ensemble their due, the actors do handle the Shakespearean language with aplomb, especially Varela, who seems perfectly at home in both the 17th and 20th centuries.
And while the Kate and Petruchio fume and fuss, the secondary romance between two chorus members takes some amusing turns. Lois Lane (Kaylee Annable) and Bill Calhoun (Joe Capstick) work out their frustrations with their relationship through song and dance – she complaining that he won’t give up gambling, he at wits end because she won’t stop flirting with anything in pants. An argument for the idea that people really can’t change, even when love is on the line, Annable and Capstick take turns chastising each other in "Why Can’t You Behave?"
And in one of the catchiest numbers in the show, Annable explains her unique perspective on fidelity with "Always True to You In My Fashion." A dynamite performer who seems born to play classic sexpot roles, she sells the whole number to the rafters, even though the song overstayed its welcome with several built in encores. And no one tap dances like Capstick, as evidenced here and in previous Skylight productions. His dance breaks were mesmerizing, particularly as he tapped up the stairs to his love’s dressing room door.
The other pair of characters to keep your eye on is the duo of gangsters who mistakenly stalks Fred, whose name was used to cover Bill Calhoun’s gambling debts. Kelly Doherty and Doug Jarecki get a lot of mileage out of shadowing their mob boss’s mark — onstage and off, and generally looking like heavily armed wiseguys who are out of their element. But after waiting for them to steal scenes all evening, their big song, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," was a bit of a let down on opening night. Lacking confidence, it also took encores it didn’t fully earn.
Hopefully the cast will settle into a good run and amp up the energy across the board to match the heat generated by the scowling, kicking, screaming and re-engaging of Roman and Varela.