When Patricia Morrison and Alfred Drake began rehearsing Cole Porter’s latest effort, they weren’t impressed. “We were using just a piano,” she recalled. “It was so disjointed we didn’t think we had a hit.” Then Porter brought in Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations for Kiss Me, Kate. “All of a sudden we got really excited.”
Imagine singing “Wunderbar,” “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” or “Kiss Me, Kate” for the first time. That sense of discovery — plus the urge to erect a massive new pedestal in the pantheon of musical theater. When Ingmar Bergman heard Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera for the first time, “The moment burst like a thin membrane and I floated unresistingly on to the next moment, which immediately burst, then on and on.” Morrison and Drake might have felt like that.
Kiss Me, Kate is such a musical treasure it rarely descends from on high. Anyone who can make it to the Old Globe Theatre between now and August 9 will be glad it has. Gifted director Darko Tresnjak, in a co-production with the Globe and Hartford Stage, gives the icon a brassy, unfettered swagger, with voices and visuals to match.
Shakespeare’s plays had to pass a censor, so he wrote in code (the word “neck,” for example, also referred to a woman’s breast). Porter’s staid, 1948 audience for Kate had a head start on the sexual repression of the 1950s. So Porter wrote in code. One of the many delights of Tresnjak’s approach: he decodes the lyrics with physical shtick. If someone suspected that “Tom, Dick, or Harry” (or “Harry, Dick, and Tom”) makes veiled sexual references, Bianca and her three suitors pierce the veil like hormone-rabid teens.
In Shakespeare’s misogynist Shrew, Kate’s the target. Tresnjak’s version could be subtitled “Kate’s Revenge,” since she takes dead aim on Petrucchio’s, um, “privates.” And when Anastasia Barzee’s extraordinary Kate sings “I Hate Men,” her voice ranging from honkytonk to high opera, she goes on a codpiece-bash and scores many a palpable hit. Then she spreads her legs and holds a note almost the requisite nine months to give birth, which she does, and “it’s a boy” — in effect, she’s perpetuated the gender she wants to eradicate.
This hilarious sequence ranks right up there with Tresnjak’s brilliant double-door, wife-versus-lover farce in The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which ranks among the best I’ve ever seen at the Old Globe.
Then there’s the Porter irony: a heat wave hits the Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore, where they’re rehearsing a tryout of The Taming of the Shrew, the Musical. A big fan, centerstage, is out of order. Paul (the excellent James T. Lane) says it’s “Too Darn Hot.” Then he and choreographer Peggy Hickey take charge with a scorching version of Porter’s jazz-fired hymn to sexual abstention (when “the weather is sizzling hot, Mr. Pants, for romance, is not”). But the irony: if it’s so darn hot, why does the large, enervated cast swing into the show’s most wall-to-wall aerobic number?
Hey, it’s Cole Porter. Anything goes.
“My great professional tragedy,” Porter wrote, “is that I have to be a book hunter.” Librettos were not a forte, but he knew one when he saw one and called Sam and Bella Spewack’s Kiss Me, Kate “the best musical comedy book I have ever read.” It’s a musical version of Taming of the Shrew. But Noises Off shenanigans — divorced leads, a gambling debt, Damon Runyon wise guys come to collect — threaten to stop the show. On the Shakespeare side, the Spewack’s borrowed whole sections of the original dialogue and let ’em rip.
Alexander Dodge gives the production a “period” backstage. Somber brick walls and antiquated lighting fixtures look down on late-’40s props and a solitary worklight. For fictional Padua, Dodge goes cartoon-colorful: yellow and white rectangles and matching “joke walls,” where heads pop out of little doors a la the old TV show Laugh-In. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting shifts from micro-realistic to full-stage bombardments of rose, orange, and blazing red.
The production bombards a lot. To his credit, Jonathan Deans’s sound design guarantees that each of Porter’s juicy lyrics will be crystal clear. As will Kris Kukul’s 16-piece orchestra. But at the same time, this is a very loud show. It could use a few more pauses so the audience can catch its breath.
As could Mike McGowan’s Fred/Petruchio. He has an excellent voice and commanding stage presence. But he shouts HEADLINES and dominates every scene. When he sings the great songs, which he does memorably, the intensity’s the same. There isn’t much of a leap and, strange to say, the songs feel less masterful as a result.
Megan Sikora can belt with the best. She plays Bianca and Lois Lane (another Porter irony: this dim bulb Lois would never land a job working with Clark Kent at the Daily Planet). Tyler Hanes, Aurelia Williams, and Wayne W. Pretlow make strong contributions.
Although they could be more menacing as the thugs, Joel Blum and — at least a foot taller — Brendan Averett sport some of Fabio Toblini’s top-shelf costumes and do a terrific “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (“If you quote Othella, your girl will think you’re a helluva fella”). They improve with each chorus. In the end they do a polished strut with black silk hats. Turns out bickering Fred and Lilli and their harried cast weren’t the only ones rehearsing at Ford’s Theatre.
Kiss Me, Kate, music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Bella and Sam Spewack
Directed by Darko Tresnjak; cast: Mike McGowan, Anastasia Barzee, Tyler Hanes, Megan Sikora, Brendan Averett, Joel Blum, Giovanni Bonaventure, James T. Lane, Tony Lawson, Barrett Martin, Robin Masella, Shina Ann Morris, Jane Papageorge, Wayne W. Pretlow, Mike Sears, Michael Starr, Jeff Seitzer, Johnny Stellard, Aurelia Williams; scenic design, Alexander Dodge, costumes, Fabio Toblini, lighting, Philip S. Rosenberg, sound Jonathan Deans, music director, Kris Kukul, choreography, Peggy Hickey
Playing through August 9, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. 619-234-5623; theoldglobe.org