A stellar, (almost) all-African-American cast breathe new life into the 1948 William Shakespeare-meets-Cole Porter classic Kiss Me Kate, an innovative Pasadena Playhouse revival that works to perfection for all but about ten minutes of its thrillingly reinvigorated two acts.
Rather than simply follow in the Broadway tradition of all-ethnic revivals like Pearl Bailey’s all-black Hello, Dolly!, something East West Players does locally with its Asian-American-cast musicals, director Sheldon Epps situates his Kiss Me Kate in the very real world of African-American theater companies like the 1930s’ Negro Theatre Project, reimagining the musical’s troupe of touring Shakespeareans as strolling players of color, in this case a fictional “American Negro Theatre” putting on their own musical version of “Swinging The Shrew.”
Not only does Epps’ concept pay homage to the triple-threat pioneers who paved the way for today’s African-American Broadway stars, it opens the iconic roles of leading man and lady Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi to performers who might not otherwise get to play these traditionally Caucasian-cast roles—in this case stage-and-screen stars Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge—along with Kiss Me Kate’s song-and-dance ingénues Bill Calhoun and Lois Lane, the “Too Darn Hot” duo of Hattie and Paul, and a singing-dancing ensemble of up-and-comers … and Hallelujah, Baby! to that!
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 musical’s show-stopping opening number) “Open In Venice” before then heading on to Verona, Cremona (“lotsa laughs in Cremona”), Parma (“that stingy, dingy menace”), then Mantua, then Padua, “then we open again…” (you guessed it) “in Venice!”
Among this “crazy group that never ceases to troop around the map of little Italy” are the stage vets playing Petruchio and Katherina, former spouses Fred and Lilli, 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.
Other Taming Of The Shrew company members include inveterate gambler (and ladies’ man) Bill (Terrance Spencer) as Lucentio, and his very own Bianca, the vivacious Lois Lane (Joanna A. Jones), 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 (David Kirk Grant and Brad Blaisdell) have come to collect.
Though nearing the end of his Broadway career by Kiss Me Kate’s late-‘40s debut, Cole Porter was still writing beautiful melodies along with 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.” (Has any lyricist ever played more ingeniously with words and rhymes than Cole?)
Adding to Kiss Me Kate’s perennial success is its combination of the best of Shakespeare (major scenes from The Taming Of The Shrew are intact) with a surefire pair of backstage love stories (and a couple of unwittingly witty gangsters thrown in for good measure.)
As Cabrillo Music Theatre’s recent revival made abundantly clear, the 66-year-old Broadway classic can still work quite niftily indeed in traditional form. Still, there’s an excitement to the Pasadena Playhouse revival that I can recall from no other Kiss Me Kate, beginning with its two stars.
TV viewers may know Brady from ABC’s comedy improv series Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but musical theater chops honed in roles like Billy Flynn in Chicago’s long-running Broadway revival serve Brady well in bringing both Fred and Petruchio to magnetic, golden-voiced life.
As for leading lady Dandridge, it’s for this star of a half-dozen-or-so Broadway shows (and a couple here at the Geffen) that adjectives like “divine” were created, her blend of beauty, class, acting-and-vocal chops, and all-around star power making for a couldn’t-be-better Lilli.
Brady and Dandridge’s “Wunderbar” is quite Wunderbar indeed, Brady’s “Were Thine That Special Face” reveals some gorgeous tenor pipes, Dandridge’s “So In Love” is simply glorious, and Tony statuettes are given to performances as show-stoppingly brilliant as her “I Hate Men.”
Recent UCLA grad Jones is yet another incandescent, effervescent Bruin talent as both Lois and Bianca, and since her Bill/Lucentio is the charismatic Spencer (Ovation-nominated as Harpo in Celebration Theatre’s The Color Purple), Jones’s “Tom, Dick Or Harry,” Spencer’s “Bianca,” and the duo’s “Why Can’t You Behave?” are in expert hands indeed.
Big-voiced Jenelle Lynn Randall may well be the sexiest, sassiest Hattie ever, and her “Too Darn Hot” partner Rogelio Douglas Jr. matches her every dance step of the way.
“Tom, Dick, Or Harry” provides a terrific showcase for not only Jones and Spencer but for the oh-so talented Eric B. Anthony and Jay Donnell as Hortensio and Gremio.
As for the stellar song-and-dance ensemble of Anthony, Shamicka Benn-Moser, Donnell, Kimberly Moore, Theresa Murray, Saudia Rashed, Carlton Willborn, and Armando Yearwood, Jr., not only do they get to execute Jeffrey Polk’s exciting new choreography, they do it quite excitingly indeed.
By situating Fred and Lilli’s travelling company in the real world (or at the very least in its musical theater equivalent), director Epps allows for cast diversity, a pair of non-African-American actors essaying the comic-relief roles of debt-collecting Thugs 1 & 2, and SoCal favorites Grant and Blaisdell are more that up to the scene-stealing task, their show-stopping “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” coming complete with two built-in encores.
Unfortunately, Epps’ otherwise inspired concept is temporarily sabotaged by the licensed 1999 revival version of the Spewacks’ book, which has Lilli romanced by Presidential hopeful (and Harry S. Truman confidant) General Harrison Howell, and though Pat Towne plays and sings him quite marvelously, the couple’s interracial romance is so historically inconceivable in Kiss Me Kate’s late-1940s setting as to derail Howell’s scenes with Lilli, for this reviewer at least. (Since Epps’ vision has clear Broadway potential, another rewrite of the Howell character might be in order.)
There can be no quibbling whatsoever about Rahn Coleman’s expert musical direction, and though nothing in Kiss Me Kate’s program indicates that new orchestrations have been written, from the opening notes of Randall’s “Another Opening Another Show,” there’s a soulfulness about Porter’s score that I haven’t noticed before.
Scenic designer John Iacovelli takes what we first see as an empty, rundown theater stage and transforms it into a Technicolor-rific Shakespeare world, with David K. Mickelsen giving us one absolutely stunning outfit after other, whether recreating the distinctive “New Look” of the late ‘40s or garbing the cast in full Shakespearean mode. Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting is as gorgeous as lighting designs come, Jon Gottlieb’s sound design provides crystal-clear amplification, and Carol F. Doran gets top marks for her wig and hair design.
Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. Lurie Horns Pfeffer is stage manager and Bree Sherry assistant stage manager. Joe Witt is general manager-production manager, Brad Enlow technical director, and Kristen Hammack company manager.
An extraordinary cast, sensational dance sequences (the twelve-minute “Too Darn Hot” provokes cheers that seem likely to last another twelve minutes), and a much-needed tribute to little-known African-American trailblazers add up to a Kiss Me Kate unlike any you’ve seen before. Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Josephine Baker would be proud.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
September 23, 2014
Photos: Earl Gibson III