Cole and comedy: the genius of ‘Kiss Me, Kate’

Clackamas Rep's revival puts the song and dance into Oregon's shrewish summer

A really good musical comedy is a contradiction in time. It pushes things ahead, always keeping its eye on the story, surging like a locomotive toward its narrative destination. And it stops things dead in their tracks, creating scenes so mesmerizing that the audience happily loses sight of why the scene exists: all that matters is the sheer sensation of the moment.

Norby, Clark,  Sharinghousen, Morgan-Rothschild: four's a crowd. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Norby, Clark, Sharinghousen, Morgan-Rothschild: four’s a crowd. Photo: Travis Nodurft

So when the second act of the 1948 Cole Porter comedy “Kiss Me, Kate” begins with the long backstage sizzle of “Too Darn Hot,” a swelteringly energetic mating dance to the impossibility of mating on a hot and humid day, not a lot of people are wondering where the play is going with this. In fact, “Too Darn Hot” doesn’t have much of anything at all to do with the plot of “Kate,” which is taken loosely from “The Taming of the Shrew.”

But it has a great deal to do with the FEEL of the play. It’s a teasing, lusty evocation of the erotic undercurrent that sparks the characters and energizes their love-battles. The playfully raunchy “Tom, Dick, or Harry” in Act One does the same thing: It puts the flesh on the bones of the tale. And the first act’s Viennese-style waltz “Wunderbar,” which lands prettily just this side of schmaltz, is more than an excuse to toss in a memorable tune that people might go home whistling. It lays the emotional evidence for the genuine affection that still exists between Fred and Lilli, the battling troupers, once married, now divorced, who’ve reunited to play Petruchio and Kate in a Baltimore production of “Shrew.” As the musical flip-flops wittily between Shakespearean scenes and a cavalcade of backstage dramas, it’s as if Fred and Lilli are seeing Kate and Petruchio – and themselves – in a funhouse mirror.

We don’t get a lot of chances to see “Kiss Me, Kate,” and more’s the pity, because it’s a genuine American classic. So a rousing round of applause to Clackamas Repertory Theatre, which has just opened a generally charming production of the show that richly rewards the modest drive it takes to get there. It’s not a perfect production. The relatively cramped stage puts the squeeze on dance numbers, which are integral to the show, and the ensemble acting can be uneven. But it’s generally sharp musically (conductor and music director Jon Quesenberry gets an astonishingly full and crisp sound from a 10-piece orchestra), the designs (Sunday-comics set and lighting by Chris Whitten, Betty Boopish costumes by Alva Bradford) are good, and the two leads – Portland favorite Leif Norby and city newcomer Merideth Kaye Clark, who comes to town with a string of sparkling national credits – provide enough singing and acting oomph to elevate the whole thing. Norby can bark when he needs to, but his considerable swagger in “Kate” is more feline, taut and sleek, a bit like Porter himself. Clark conveys an almost scary comic snarl: she seems almost homicidally earnest as she slams the furniture and growls that “I Hate Men.” Yet it’s a restrained rage, a calculated tantrum that she sometimes confirms to the audience with a flash of satisfied delight: she knows how to hold herself back for dramatic effect. And musically, both give full range to one of the musical theater’s finest scores, which pulses exultantly from the pure romance of “So in Love” to the sly flutter of “Always True to You in My Fashion” and the jazzy riffs of “From This Moment On,” which was lifted from Porter’s 1951 show “Out of This World” for a 1999 Broadway revival, and left in for this production.

Portland theater’s become known in the past few years as a fertile experimental lab for new work, but it’s also seen a heartening revival of interest in musical theater. Downtown, Portland Center Stage has made a fruitful commitment to producing new and classic musical works. But a lot of the action’s been in the suburbs, in places like Tigard’s Broadway Rose, Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Theatre, and Clackamas Rep, which performs on the outskirts of Oregon City at Clackamas Community College. Musicals have been mainstays for these companies, which along with Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage Theatre have extended Portland’s theater reach admirably beyond the city’s core. In a way it makes sense that musicals are blooming in the ’burbs, where audiences tend to be more traditional (I won’t say “conservative”: the word’s meaning has been destroyed by its political context) and appreciative of historically proven material. Shows like “Kiss Me, Kate” are theatrical touchstones, and no matter how forward-looking we think we are, we need to touch them now and again.

Backstage, things are sizzlin' hot. Photo: Clackamas Rep

Backstage, things are sizzlin’ hot. Photo: Clackamas Rep

My son the music scholar likes to think of “Kiss Me, Kate” as an operetta, and specifically as an American operetta, a musical play that takes the format of a European style and applies it to American culture and American sounds, loosening and freshening the genre in the process. He has a point. Porter was reportedly enthralled with “The Song of Norway,” which was based on music by Grieg, when he was working on “Kate” (the “Norway” team later produced 1955’s “Kismet,” based on music by Borodin) and Porter seemed determined to write a more genuinely integrated work of music theater than so many of his earlier hits that had had loose books designed mainly to provide a setting for the songs. As a result, “Kate” holds up beautifully, even given the sea change in sexual politics in the 60-plus years since its debut.

The Shakespeare connection is also important, providing a solid structural base that the writers Sam and Bella Spewack vamped on wittily in their variation on the theme. (The characters of Fred and Lilli were inspired by the sometimes epically bickering theater couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who also provided the inspiration for Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Ten Chimneys,” the play that new artistic director Damaso Rodriguez chose this spring as his first to direct for Artists Rep. Yet another  funhouse mirror: let’s not forget that “Kate” is also very much a play about the alternating artificiality and genuineness of the theater.) One of the terrific things about the Spewacks’ book is that it simply assumes the audience knows “Shrew,” dropping in pertinent scenes without bothering to lay laborious explanatory groundwork. And because the script makes sure that Fred and Lilli are equally matched, a fit pair both in their strengths and weaknesses, the issues of gender dominance that sometimes haunt “Shrew” simply don’t matter. Ditto for the low-comedy couple Lois and Bill: they’re equally tainted.

Any number of Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted with music (Arne Zaslove did a slew of them, ranging from “Twelfth Night” to “Macbeth,” years ago for Seattle’s old Bathhouse Theatre) but surprisingly few have had the full Broadway treatment. That short list includes the wonderful and almost never seen “The Boys from Syracuse,” adapted in 1938 from “The Comedy of Errors”; “Kiss Me, Kate” (1948); and “West Side Story,” the transplanted and updated “Romeo and Juliet,” from 1957 – once a decade during the Broadway musical’s golden years. I’m tempted to add 1950’s “Guys and Dolls” to the list, even though it’s based on Damon Runyon’s tales, because its structure is classically Shakespearean: high comedy and low comedy, high romance and low romance, something for the gentry, something for the groundlings, and hitting that sweet spot in between.

“Kiss Me, Kate” is one of those musicals that makes you long for the full-out, no-expenses-spared Broadway approach, and Clackamas Rep has neither the space nor the money to do that. Accomodations have been made. But director David Smith-English and choreographer Wes Hanson, along with musical director Quesenberry, have cast well and gone straight to the heart of the thing, making smart choices all along the way. Clark and Norby are the guts and glory of this “Kate,” but they have plenty of good support, including (among others) Alex Nathan as the insinuating lead singer/dancer in “Too Darned Hot”; a purring Amelia Morgan-Rothschild as Bianca/Lois Lane, the object of Kate’s contention; veteran James Lawrence as the sisters’ exasperated father Baptista; James Sharinghausen as Bill, the hoofer whose gambling habit kicks off the evening’ crisis; and Ernie Casciato as the scene-stealing general who bursts in like a one-man cavalry to take Lilli away from all this. Doren Elias and Michael Mitchell have terrific fun as the genial mob enforcers who deliver the showstopping “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and who, come to think of it, connect “Kiss Me, Kate” to “Guys and Dolls.” I rest my case.

Morgan-Rothschild salutes Casciato (right). Photo: Clackamas Rep

Morgan-Rothschild salutes Casciato (right). Photo: Clackamas Rep

 *

 Before seeing “Kate” on Saturday night, I went to Artists Rep in the afternoon to catch the next-to-last performance of Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading of John Fletcher’s 17th century comedy “The Tamer Tamed.” It was a fine addition to Oregon’s shrewish summer, which has also included “Kate,” Portland Shakespeare’s bracingly good (and just ended) “Shrew,” and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s current “Shrew,” which continues in Ashland through Nov. 3.

The opportunity to see so many variations on a classic theme in a short period of time is really quite splendid. Fletcher wrote “The Tamer Tamed” very much in response to Shakespeare’s “Shrew.” In it, Kate has died, and Petruchio remarries a supposedly mild-mannered young beauty, Maria, who promptly turns the tables on him and doesn’t relent until he hollers uncle. Intriguingly, Bianca, the spoiled, man-loving sister of “Shrew,” becomes a feminist instigator and conspirator in Fletcher’s play, injecting a vial of “Lysistrata” activism into the plot.

“The Tamer Tamed” is witty and crowd-pleasing and a lesser thing than “The Taming of the Shrew” – a clever riposte with less depth or originality than the original. It makes me think of a Hollywood sequel: Hey, people liked Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold together. Let’s do it again, different but the same. Shakespeare’s version has Kate and Petruchio truly wrestling with the meaning and implications of equality. Fletcher’s just says, OK, let’s let the other side win this time.

But “lesser than” doesn’t mean “not good.” Fletcher’s play is genuinely interesting, and a full production might even reveal depths I’m not seeing at first glance. It’d be a kick to see full productions of the two shows in rotating rep. Director Michael Nehring’s production is vigorous and active, and surprisingly well fleshed out for a reading. The cast (led by Kayla Lian as Maria, Peter Platt as Petruchio, Ashley Nicole Williams as Bianca and Britt Harris as the “new” Bianca, Livia) is sharp and self-assured. This was a project well worth doing. Next time, maybe, the whole Megillah, with sets and costumes and rehearsal time and all the rest.

NOTE:

“Kiss Me, Kate” continues through August 25 at Clackamas Repertory Theatre, with performances in the Osterman studio theater of the Neimeyer Center on the campus of Clackamas Community College. Ticket information is here.

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