Cole Porter’s 1948 Broadway smash has opened at San Pedro’s historic Warner Grand, the latest offering of The Relevant Stage theater company. Dedicated to the memory of Kathryn Grayson (who played Kate in the 1953 MGM Technicolor movie classic), the production stars none other than her granddaughter Kristen Towers-Rowles.

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 detail their itinerary in the show’s crackerjack opening number: “We 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 (Kiss Me Kate director Ray Buffer) and Lilli Vanessi (Rowles). 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 (Drew Fitzpatrick) as Lucentio, and his Bianca, the beauteous Lois Lane (Jessica Marie Taylor), 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 (Greg Abbott and Michael Jay Aronovitz) have come to collect.

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.) 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! In addition, musical numbers like “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” and “Too Darn Hot” give any choreographer and his or her dancers the chance to strut their stuff.

The Relevant Stage production of Kiss Me Kate has been directed with verve by Buffer and energetically choreographed by Keenon Hooks (who also plays Paul) and Marisa Martinez. Completing the large cast are Sara Badawi, Suzanne Badawi, Martin Feldman (General Harrison Howell), Ariella Fiore, Michael German (Pops, Padua Priest), Shelly Hacco, Dorian Harkless, Justin P. James (Stagehand #3, Haberdasher), Andrew Lucero (Stagehand #3, Assistant Electrician), Eileen Cherry O’Donnell, Jayson Puls (Gremio, Flynt), Vito Roppo (Harry, Baptista), Alexander James Salas, Brittany Sindicich (Dance Captain, Waitress), Nanami Sunaga, Jonathan Taylor (Gregory), David Terrell (Stage Manager, Ralph), Calvin Tucker (Stagehand #1, Cab Driver, Nathaniel), Jenny Um, Monique Warren (Hattie), Steve Weber (Aide to General Howell, Hortensio), and Amy Paloma Welch (Wardrobe Lady).

There are many reasons to enjoy The Relevant Stage’s Kiss Me Kate, not the least of which is 1931’s Warner Grand Theatre, a smaller-than-the-Pantages (but still opulent) Golden Age movie palace. Buffer, Rowles, and Taylor all shine vocally. Towers-Rowles milks every one of Lilli’s divalicious moments, plays the heck out of Kate’s spitfire temper tantrums, and sings in a glorious soprano much like her Grandma’s. Buffer is a terrifically macho Fred and Petruchio, and 2010 UCLA musical theater grad Taylor makes for a delectable Lois and Bianca.

Supporting role standouts are the hilariously Mutt-and-Jeff gangsters Abbott and Aronovitz and their scene-stealing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” Hook’s Gene Kelly-esque Paul, and Feldman’s velvet-voiced General. Fitzsimmons, Puls, and Weber prove nimble dance partners for Taylor’s delightful, double entendre-spiced “Tom, Dick, or Harry.”

Co-choreographers Hooks and Marisa Martinez get the ensemble (made up of both dancers and non-dancers) doing some pretty proficient hoofing, particularly in the extended Act Two opener “Too Darned Hot,” and the entire cast shine vocally in musical numbers, with kudos due musical directors Stephen Tosh and Stephen Pu. Orchestral tracks are pre-recorded, giving the production a bigger, more professional sound than a smaller live orchestra might have. Kara McLeod’s colorful Shakespearean costumes are a visual treat, Ryan Rowles’ sound design provides an excellent mix of amplified voices and music tracks (and is a huge improvement over previous TRS productions), and Richard Taylor’s lighting design is an effective one. Lucero’s budget-conscious set design isn’t what the opulent Warner Grand would lead you to expect, but scores points for imagination and ingenuity. Jack Molisani is stage manager.

Not everything works as well as it should or could. Much more sense of the 1947 time frame is needed, in both costume and hair design, and the ill-advised decision to have the show-within-a-show anachronistically retitled “Shrewsical” may get a laugh, but is needless script tampering that would not sit well with the show’s licensers I fear. The ensemble’s youth (and in some cases inexperience) makes it seem at times that two Kiss Me Kates are being presented simultaneously, one of them professional, the other a school production (albeit a commendable one).

Still, The Relevant Stage has come a long, long way since 2008’s Bat Boy, and though what you get on the Warner Grand stage isn’t in the same league as what you’ll see in a CLO production, TRS’s Kiss Me Kate ends up doing exactly what it is supposed to do. It entertains.

The Relevant Stage, Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th Street, San Pedro.
–Steven Stanley
February 20, 2011

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