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The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s mission may be to stage canonical classics, but Kiss Me Kate, their latest flirtation with song-and-dance classics, is outstanding. And as long as the dancing is this Darn Hot, the sound is better than at the Kennedy Center, and the sets are as jaw-dropping as anything you’d see on Broadway, who is going to complain?
That said, it’s still a matter of taste whether you actually like Cole Porter’s 1949 winner of the first-ever Tony for Best Musical, or whether you prefer shows written in the ensuing 66 years. If you like Kiss Me, Kate, then you’ll love it even more after seeing Alan Paul’s cheeky, speedy new production.
As Michael Kahn’s current young lieutenant at STC, Paul seems to have gotten his job in part for his facility with musicals. Since 2011, the theater has given its holiday slot either to a musical directed by Paul or a Shakespeare hit-parade play directed by Ethan McSweeny: Much Ado in 2011, Midsummer in 2012, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 2013, The Tempest last year, and now Kate.
Technically, this is Paul’s second well-directed production at STC this year, since last season the musical was pushed forward to the spring. (He also helmed Silence! The Musical at Studio over the summer.) Paul did the best he could with Man of La Mancha, but casual rape plots and overzealous knights are tough sells, even in a solid production. A strong-willed woman flirting with a stubborn ex who quotes Shakespeare, on the other hand? That plot has timeless appeal.
Paul expertly helms a Kate that’s a sweet homage not only to Porter’s score, but to the 1953 film. The basic plot of both is the same: Impresario Fred Graham wants to write, direct and star in a new musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, and he casts his ex-wife, film star Lilli Vanessi, to star opposite him. Some musical numbers are presented as from the show-within-the-show; others occur spontaneously in rehearsal, backstage, or—as with Act II showstopper “Too Darn Hot”—in the alley behind the theater.
As is often the case at STC, stars Douglas Sills and Christine Sherrill are considerably older than their characters. (Fred is 32 in the musical; Sills is 55 if Internet Broadway Database is to be believed.) Thankfully, the two-decade bump isn’t as problematic here as it is in some other productions, because they otherwise seem so suited for the roles. Earlier this fall, Sherrill had the misfortune of starring as a bitchy matriarch in the political musical The Fix. She’s also a tough broad in Kate, but she has much more to do then bark orders. Her Lilli holds court with Hepburn-esque grace while trading barbs with an ex she still loves and loves to hate. (Hence the classic anthem, “I Hate Men.”) As the secondary lovers Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, Robyn Hurder and Clyde Alves are a bit more caricatured, but fully invested in their footwork. Alves is fresh off of a Broadway run of the dance-heavy On the Town, while Hurder has fan kicks to spare.
The ensemble can tap and turn with flare, and that’s especially crucial given that a very young Bob Fosse did the choreography (and appeared in the film). Now-famous pianist/conductor André Previn served as the movie studio’s music director, and the arrangement still sounds great at STC as conducted by James Cunningham. James Noone designed the sets, which are cartoonishly colorful for the show-within-a-show, yet nostalgically dulled when the action returns to 1948. It’s like watching a grand old Technicolor movie, live.
Kiss Me, Kate was not the first musical about show-biz shenanigans, but it does predate many, including A Chorus Line, Follies, and Curtains. The genre representative on Broadway at the moment is Something Rotten!, which bills itself as a musical about the first musical. Brian D’Arcy James stars as a struggling Elizabethan impresario who, in a bid to out-do his rival Shakespeare, puts on a musical called Omelet and pisses off a bunch of closeted gay Puritans in the process.
Really, all you have to read is that plot synopsis to acknowledge that Porter and his co-writers Sam and Bella Spewack were working on more sophisticated level of literary humor. Care to brush up your Shakespeare? See a 60-year-old show, and you’ll be ready to start quoting him now.
610 F St. NW. $20–$108. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.