On Stage: Another Op’nin, Another Show

by Chuck Conconi

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is filled with memorable songs. 

The company of Kiss Me, Kate, directed by Alan Paul at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

The company of “Kiss Me, Kate” directed by Alan Paul at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

From the first notes of Cole Porter’s opening number, “Another Op’nin, Another Show” with actors moving onto Sidney Harman Hall’s vast open stage, dancing and singing the introduction of “Kiss Me Kate,” it is obvious this will be an evening to settle back and enjoy.

There are few things that can match the excitement and romance of what it takes backstage to produce a play, and “Kiss Me Kate” is one of the best at exposing the fun, the chaos and energy of what really goes on. “Kiss Me Kate” takes William Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” and in a cleaver twist that Shakespeare would have endorsed, makes “Kiss Me Kate” a play within a play.

With the book by Samuel and Bella Spewack, who brought in Porter, a composing giant of the 20th century, to create the lovely music and sometimes sassy and sexy lyrics, “Kiss Me Kate” was raised to the top and rarified ranks of the greatest of Broadway musicals.

Under the respectful, energetic direction of Alan Paul, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has staged a big musical experience, backed by an orchestra with a big sound under music director Doug Peck and a cast of young singers and dancers performing at the top of their game. In this holiday season when several Washington area theaters are staging their annual money-maker musicals, this is the one to see.

In a period when elaborate sets are often replaced with projected videos and minimal props, James Noone’s scenic design is impressive with sets that range from an empty rehearsal stage, a grubby backstage area, an alley behind the Baltimore out-of-town tryout theater and the dressing rooms of the stars. Set in 1948, there are also vintage sets evoking a Shakespearean concept of Padua in the 17th century. “Kiss Me Kate” opened on Broadway in 1948 and won five Tony Awards.

The rehearsals for this show have brought together Fred Graham (Douglas Sills), an actor with a monumental ego, and Lilli Vanessi (Christine Sherrill), an actress with a volcanic temper. The couple were once married and have been divorced for a year. They are back together in an ill-advised collaboration for this production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” He will be Petruchio and she Katherine.

They may be divorced, and Vanessi is now engaged to another man, but there is something still seething between the two as they make the Baltimore Theater a battleground. Vanessi’s temper is so legendary that it is said that she “bit King Kong and gave him rabies.” Their feelings are evident in the plaintive “So in Love” with you am I.

There is a second romance in the company between the sexy Lois Lane (Robyn Hurder) and Bill Calhoun (Clyde Alves). Both Hurder and Alves are superb dancers. Hurder is a show stopper when she sings Porter’s satirical, “Always True to You in My Fashion.” Calhoun is an obsessive gambler, but he loves Lane and also has one of the production’s great song and dance numbers, “Bianca.”

As the stars Graham and Vanessi battle both on and off stage, Vanessi angrily threatens to leave the show and Graham can’t allow that to happen. He is aware the show can’t survive without her and when two comic gangsters show up to collect Calhoun’s gambling debt (he had signed Graham’s name to the IOU), the always scheming Graham sees a way to have the thugs “persuade” Vanessi to continue through the run of the show so there will be money to pay off the gambling debt.

The ersatz gangsters, Bob Ari and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod are a couple of buffoonish, clichéd gangsters in double-breasted, pin-striped  suits, but they are fun characters,  and in one of the more delightful moments of “Kiss Me Kate” is their duet when they sing and dance Porter’s vaudevillian number, “Brush Up You Shakespeare.”

“Kiss Me Kate” is farcical fun filled with some of Porter’s most memorable music and lyrics, such as: “Why Can’t You Behave?” “We Open in Venice,” “Tom, Dick or Harry,” “I Hate Men,” “Where is the Life That Late I Led?,” and the title ensemble, “Kiss Me Kate.” Alan Paul and the Shakespeare Theatre Company have made this a highlight of the Christmas Season musicals.

“Kiss Me Kate” continues through January 3 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets are $44-$118 and available at 202-547-1122 or online here

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