It’s been six-and-a-half decades since William Shakespeare met Cole Porter in Kiss Me Kate, though with director extraordinaire Richard Israel in the driver’s seat, Cabrillo Music Theatre’s 2013 revival of the Tony Award-winning 1948 Broadway smash feels fresh and alive and gay and young for all its years.

WE OPENED IN VENICE 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 show-stopping 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 stage vets playing Petruchio and Katherina—former spouses Fred Graham (Davis Gaines) and Lilli Vanessi (Victoria Strong), whose 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 exes after all.

Lois & Bill Fred and the Two Men

Other Taming Of The Shrew company members include inveterate gambler (and ladies’ man) Bill Calhoun (Scott Reardon) as Lucentio, and his Bianca, the vivacious Lois Lane (Reba Buhr), currently dating Fred but attracted despite her better instincts to 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 (Tom McMahon and Steve Greene) have come to collect.

In addition to Israel’s inspired direction, Cabrillo’s Kiss Me Kate benefits immensely from John Todd’s supremely inventive choreography in one song-and-dance number after another performed by an all-around tiptop ensemble to conductor-musical director Darryl Archibald’s Broadway-caliber 18-piece Cabrillo Music Theatre orchestra.

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.)

Petruchio & Kate Lilli & Fred

Broadway star Gaines proves himself the quintessential Fred Graham/Petruchio, playing both roles with pizzazz, singing Porter’s songs as gorgeously as they’ve been sung, reciting iambic pentameter like a Shakespeare pro, and sharing terrific stage chemistry with leading lady (and Southland treasure) Strong’s Lili/Katharina, about whom all of the above apply (pizzazz, gorgeousness, and pro status in equal measure)—in addition to looking quite gorgeous in costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s Elizabethan velvets. And did I mention how Gaines’ and Strong’s fight scenes sizzle with lust channeled as rage? Or that Strong gets a mid-song burst of applause for some inspired labor pains during “I Hate Men”?

Kiss Me Kate’s B-plot is in winning hands as well, with handsome boy-next-door singer-hoofer Reardon the next best thing to Donald O’Connor as Bill/Lucentio and petite blonde powerhouse Buhr stealing every scene she’s in as the oomphy Lois Lane and the spirited Bianca.

As for those Guys And Dolls-ready gangsters, McMahon and Greene simply couldn’t be funnier, especially in the scene-stealing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” which comes complete with two built-in encores.

Raquel Jeté and Lamont Whitaker both get their center-stage moments to shine, she belting out “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” with the best of them and he showing off drop-dead gorgeous pipes and high-kicking heels in “Too Darn Hot,” which just happens to be about as excitingly choreographed and performed a twelve-minute-long dance sequence as you’re likely to see in the next twelve months. (Instead of the usual twelve or so dancers, Todd includes all two-dozen ensemble members, making this the show-stoppingest of show-stoppers.)

Charismatic up-and-comers John Paul Batista (Riley/Hortensio) and Michael Byrne (Flynt/Gremio) join Reardon and Buhr for “Tom, Dick, And Harry,” a dance sequence which showcases all four’s considerable élan. Steve Perren shows off velvet pipes as crusty old General Harrison Howell and Timothy Reese is a young charmer as stage manager Ralph. Ronald Rezac does amusing work as Harry Trevor and as Katherina and Bianca’s father Baptista Minola; ditto for Martin Feldman as every theater’s inevitable “Pops” (and as Inkeeper/Priest)

Petruchio & Ensemble Highest marks are in order for each and every one of the talented, tireless ensemble made up of Orlando Agawin, Francesca Barletta, Danielle Campbell, Allen Darby (Stagehand #1/Phillp), Jay Gamboa (Stagehand #3), Lexi Greene, Abigail Herman, Natalie Rose Iscovich, Kurt Kemper (Haberdasher), Anna Lamonica, Tellina Lee, dance captain Derek A. Lewis (Gregory), Shelley Regner, Tracy Ray Reynolds (Wardrobe Lady), Harry Schantz, Joey Sponseller (Stagehand #2/Nathaniel), and Megan Stonger.

CMT’s Kiss Me Kate may well be the most gorgeous-to-look-at show in town, thanks to Schoenberg’s splendiferous multitude of Technicolor costumes (coordinated by Christine Gibson), Rand Ryan’s vivid lighting design, and Cassie Russek’s topnotch hair and makeup. (Sets provided by Gateway Playhouse, Bellport, NY are Broadway-tour caliber.) Sound designer Jonathan Burke makes every orchestral note and sung syllable sound crystal clear.

Gary Mitz is technical director, Brooke Baldwin stage manager, Susie Castillo assistant stage manager, and Char Brister crew captain.

Fred & Lilli Though times have changed since Kiss Me Kate first saw the lights of Broadway way back in 1948, its Cole Porter words and music, Sam and Bella Spewack’s snappy patter, and the musical’s classic Shakespearean show-within-a-show continue to make this late-‘40s gem an ageless crowd-pleaser. Check out Cabrillo Music Theatre’s spiffy revival this week and next to find out why.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
October 18, 2103
Photos: Ed Krieger

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