Compared to the 510 years that Petruchio has been telling Katherina to “Kiss me, Kate” in William Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew, the mere 62 that he’s been doing the same thing in Cole Porter’s Tony Award-winning Kiss Me Kate seem like no time at all, especially in as fresh and fun a production as the one currently on stage at Glendale Centre Theatre.

Any musical theater buff worth his or her salt knows Porter’s play-within-a-musical backwards and forwards, but for the uninitiated out there, Kiss Me Kate’s plot (book by Sam and Bella Spewack) revolves around a troupe of traveling Shakespearean players who, as they sing in the show’s crackerjack opening number, “open in Venice. We next play Verona, then on to Cremona.  (Lotsa laughs in Cremona.)  Our next jump is Parma, that stingy, dingy menace, then Mantua, then Padua, then we open again…” You guessed it, “in Venice!”

Among the “crazy group that never ceases to troop around the map of little Italy” are the actor and actress playing Petruchio and Katherina—the formerly married-to-each-other Fred Graham (Dink O’Neal) and Lilli Vanessi (Donna Cherry). Fred and Lilli’s constant bickering amidst occasional musical reminiscences about the “Wunderbar” times of their early married life hint at the possibility that by Kiss Me Kate’s final curtain, the twosome may no longer be ex-lovers after all.

Other Taming Of The Shrew company members include inveterate gambler (and ladies’ man) Bill Calhoun (Joey Elrose) as Lucentio, and his Bianca, the beauteous Lois Lane (Alli McGinnis), currently dating Fred but attracted despite her better instincts to … you guessed it … lothario Bill. The troupe’s resident Casanova, meanwhile, has non-romantic matters on his mind, namely the $10,000 gambling dept he owes the mob, which a pair of Damon Runyonesque gangsters (Dean Ricca and Shawn Cahill) have come to collect.

Under Tom Robinson’s snappy direction, and with choreography by Mark Knowles (some of the best I’ve yet seen at Glendale Centre Theatre) performed by an all-around terrific cast, Kiss Me Kate proves yet another winner for America’s oldest continuously running theater-in-the-round.

It helps that Cole Porter, even though near the end of his Broadway career by 1948, was still writing beautiful melodies and some of the cleverest rhymes ever heard on the Broadway stage. Take these, for example, from “Always True To You In My Fashion”:  “Mister Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat.  If the Harris pat means a Paris hat, Bébé,  Oo-la-la!”  Oh-la-la is right!  

It helps also that Kiss Me Kate combines the best of Shakespeare (major scenes from The Taming Of The Shrew are intact) with a surefire pair of backstage love stories (and a pair of unwittingly witty gamblers thrown in for good measure.)

It helps too that musical numbers like “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” and “Too Darn Hot” give choreographer Knowles and his dancers the chance to strut their stuff in wow-worthy fashion.

All this comes magically together on the Glendale Centre Theatre stage, beginning with some terrific work by O’Neal (who should be playing leads more often) and Cherry (channeling her inner diva to great comic effect). Both stars have the vocal and comedic chops to bring feuding exes Fred and Lilli to vivid life, and their fight scenes sizzle with lust channeled as rage.

Elrose is a song-and-dance charmer as Bill and McGinnis mixes Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop to make her Lois a treat from start to finish.  Ricca and Cahill milk every laugh from their Guys And Dolls-ready gangsters, especially in the scene-stealing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” complete with two built-in encores. Kate Ponzio and Clayton Farris both get their center-stage moments to shine, she belting out “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” and he hoofing like Gene Kelly in “Too Darn Hot.”  

(Speaking of which, the latter number turns out to be about as excitingly choreographed and performed a 12-minute-long dance sequence as you’re likely to see this or any month.)

Drew Foronda and Paul Reid join Elrose and McGinnis for “Tom, Dick, And Harry,” a dance sequence which showcases the three men in balletic mode. Rick Lawrence is a gruff and funny General Harrison Howell and Jonny Marlow is a humorously flighty Ralph (the stage manager).  Don Woodruff does amusing work as Katherina and Bianca’s father Baptista Minola; ditto for Kyle Kelly as Pops.  (There must be a man nicknamed Pops working in every theater.)

The singing-dancing ensemble is completed by John Paul Batista, Jeffrey Dolenar, Johnna Driscoll, Leo Foti, Kate Landro, Paul Marchegiani, Bridget Pugliese, Angela Raile, Brittany Rodin, Anne E. Schroeder, and Cynthia Stults—all of them excellent.

Kudos are due too to musical director Steven Applegate.  The prerecorded musical tracks sound almost live, a big improvement over some previous productions. As always, Tim Dietlein’s sets make ingenious use of GCT’s “in-the-square” stage, and cast members deserve major props for their precision choreographed and executed scene changes.  Dietlein’s lighting is tiptop as well.

Angela Wood and the Costume Shoppe deserve bonus points not only for their gorgeous creations but for having built each and every costume from the ground up. Very impressive.

Okay, I’ll be picky and say that an in-the-round production of Kiss Me Kate can’t match the spectacle and beauty of a fully designed proscenium production.  On the other hand, what’s lost in grandeur is largely made up for in intimacy.  At GCT, no matter where you sit, you are close to the action, and sometimes even surrounded by it.

Once again, Glendale Centre Theatre has come up with a musical comedy winner, one certain to please both its older subscribers as well as younger audience members who’ve come to cheer on family and friends in the cast. Kiss Me Kate may have been written before even I was born, but it’s still (to borrow from Rodgers & Hammerstein), “fresh and alive and gay and young,” and “bustin’ out all over” with melody, dance, laughter, and romance.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
February 25, 2010

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