Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, February 2006
Last August, as a special treat, I took my then-sixteen-year-old son Brandon to New York to see Monty Python’s Spamalot. At intermission I turned to him and, indicating the 1,519 or so members of the unwashed masses with whom I was forced to share the Schubert Theatre, implied that they were woefully ignorant of the source material. Brandon sighed deeply and said, “Mom, you have to remember when you go to the theatre that you are always way over-prepared and a hopeless purist.” He’s right. Lesson learned.
I recalled this conversation late last night, after two days of fussing and fuming around with scripts of Kiss Me, Kate and first folio editions of The Taming of the Shrew and biographies of Cole Porter, trying desperately to formulate a cogent essay on why I thought Kiss Me, Kate was a poor adaptation of Shakespeare, despite Porter’s fabulous score, when what I am supposed to be doing is writing a review of the current production of Kiss Me, Kate at the Cohoes Music Hall.
Is it a good production, Gail? Yes! Well, finally!
I hold fast to my opinion that, in spite of the fact that it wins multiple Tony awards every time it is trotted out on Broadway, Kiss Me, Kate is an awkwardly constructed old war-horse of a musical, but that is not the fault of anyone in Cohoes. Director Jim Charles and choreographer Jessica Costa, who also appears as Lois Lane/Bianca, have put together an entertaining production filled with talented performers and energetic dance numbers. Porter’s wonderful songs and witty lyrics are treated with great reverence, with seldom-heard encore verses trotted out on several numbers in a positively Savoyard manner.
If you have never met up with Kiss Me, Kate in its 58 years of existence, it is a back-stage musical. Egotistical actor/producer Fred Graham (Jerry Christakos) has mounted a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in which he is playing Petruchio and his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Karen Culliver) is playing Katherine, aka Kate. At a try-out performance in Baltimore, their backstage squabbles mirror those of their Shakespearean counterparts on stage, as do those of the secondary couple, Lois Lane (Costa), a former chorine, cast by Fred’s roving eye in the plum role of Kate’s much-sought-after sister Bianca, and her boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Tony Rivera), who is playing Hortensio, one of Bianca’s suitors. Unbeknownst to Fred, Bill has signed his name to a gambling IOU with some gangsters, who show up demanding payment just as Lilli threatens to walk out of the show mid-performance after discovering Fred’s flirtation with Lois. Fred convinces the two henchmen (Drew Davidson and Corey Moran) that he can only pay the debt if Lilli stays with the show, and so they suit up and take to the stage to make sure she continues the performance. Lilli’s new fiance, General Harrison Howell (Sky Vogel), who has just turned down Harry Truman and accepted Thomas Dewey’s invitation to be his running-mate, shows up to rescue her, but she realizes that she not cut out for the life of a politician’s wife in a “respectable Republican cloth coat” (a newly inserted anachronistic reference to Nixon’s 1952 Checkers speech) and returns to the stage and to Fred.
At the opening of each act the backstage crew bursts into song and dance in two of the production’s most rousing numbers Another Op’nin’, Another Show and Too Darn Hot. The sassy Tracy Funke leads the former and the flexible Ryan Hunt leads the latter, but everyone joins in. Costa, who is making her third appearance on the Cohoes stage and her debut as choreographer, has bodies flying every which way to great effect. It is nice to see dancers of different sizes and shapes kicking up their heels, and everyone gets a little star turn.
Costa herself is impressive as Lois, displaying a strong voice and strutting her stuff in some alluring lingerie in her big second act number Always True to You In My Fashion. After verses and verses and verses of tongue-twisting Porter lyrics she departs the stage in dramatic fashion, swinging from one ankle on a rolling wardrobe rack.
It is obvious that Costa and Rivera just love dancing together, and he tosses her around with great abandon in their duets. Okay, so Rivera doesn’t look like a Bill Calhoun, who cares when he can do handsprings across the stage?
Christakos is much better suited to the showy role of Fred/Petruchio than he was in his last Cohoes outing as the properly reserved Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. He is a handsome fellow with a flair for Porter. I enjoyed him thoroughly.
Culliver is a strikingly beautiful red-head with a glorious voice. She has sung the vocally demanding role of Christine Daae on Broadway and in touring productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (and also in the Kopit and Yeston version) which gives you and idea of the caliber of her talents. She was a pleasure to watch and to listen to.
Vogel was fun and funny as the pompous and two-faced General Howell. I notice that Ron Holgate, who recently directed Vogel in the NYSTI production of 1776, played this part in the 1999 Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate. I wonder if they discussed the role at all? As the two unnamed thugs Davidson and Moran are just hilarious. And they steal the show with their rendition – repeatedly encored to the audience’s delight – of Brush Up Your Shakespeare at the bottom of the second act. Porter uses this throw away number to make some outrageously filthy puns involving the titles of Shakespeare’s plays (my favorite is the one about Coriolanus). The whole number is irresistible American musical comedy at its best.
Now, of course, I have to complain about underwear. Where were the codpieces? I am a big fan of outrageous codpieces in Elizabethan comedy. I understand they had them on Broadway in 1999, and frankly the show screams for them. And they would be considerably better than the sight (once again at Cohoes) of men in tights without dance belts. Come on guys…
And one other little kvetch. Since the book of Kiss Me, Kate got a sprucing up for the 1999 revival (one of my favorite playwrights, John Guare, made “uncredited contributions”) why oh why didn’t they change the character name of Lois Lane? I will probably get irate e-mails reminding me that it is crucial to one of Porter’s elaborate rhyme schemes in some number or other, but its association with the Man of Steel is so strong that I wish some one would come up with something else that would work. Do you know that Clark Kent asked Lois Lane out on a date in Superman’s first-ever comic book appearance in June of 1938? The comic book characters were already popular on the radio in the 1940’s. I am surprised that the audience at the original Broadway production in 1948 wasn’t waiting for that swooshing sound when they heard the name.
But other than those two very minor complaints, I had a swell time at Kiss Me, Kate. Many of Whitney Locher’s costumes were splendid, especially Lilli/Katherine’s final gown, the lighting design by Even Purcell was solid, and musical director Nathan W. Perry led a tuneful seven piece pit band. Jen Price’s scenery allowed for rapid changes from “backstage reality” to “Shakespearean Italy” and back again.
The real star of Kiss Me, Kate is the immortal Cole Porter (1891-1964) whose music and lyrics transform a mediocre attempt to musicalize Shakespeare into a classic. This show was his final Broadway triumph, written a decade after the 1937 tragic horseback riding accident that left him wheelchair bound and in great pain. Much as I have longed to find proof that he wrote even a scrap of the show at his home in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I live, there is little evidence.* Ah well… Thanks to the Cohoes Music Hall the nearby hills are once again alive with the sound of his music.
Kiss Me, Kate, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through April 2 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. The show runs two hours and fifty minutes with one intermission. There is a little bawdiness, but the bigger concern for modern families is the endorsement of domestic violence. If you take older kids, be prepared to talk with them about how attitudes have changed in this regard. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
* This just in from Drew Davidson, who is not only an actor but the host of Curtain Going Up a radio show about musical theatre: “According to Porter biographer William McBrien, Cole wrote Where is the Life That Late I Led, I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily and Another Openin’, Another Show all in one four-day weekend at Buxton Hill [Porter’s estate in Williamstown, MA].” (see Cole Porter, by William McBrien. © 2000, Vintage. p. 312)
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006