A couple dozen of Southern California’s most talented student triple-threats bring the Cole Porter classic Kiss Me Kate to vibrant, effervescent life down Orange County way, once again making it abundantly clear why Cal State Fullerton’s musical theater BFA program is among the country’s finest in turning out Broadway-bound talent.
It’s been six-and-a-half decades since William Shakespeare met Cole Porter on the Broadway stage, though you’d hardly know it from just how fresh and alive the Tony Award-winning 1948 Broadway smash feels as performed by the Classes Of 2015 & ’16 (with some equally talented sophomores thrown in for good measure).
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 (Nick Gardner) and Lilli Vanessi (Chelle Denton), 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 Calhoun (Matt Dunn) as Lucentio, and his Bianca, the vivacious Lois Lane (Emily Chelsea), 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 (Tyler Lemire and Rubén Carbajal) have come to collect.
In addition to Jeremy Lewis’s classy direction, CSUF’s Kiss Me Kate benefits immensely from William F. Lett’s as always exuberant choreography in one song-and-dance number after another performed by an all-around stupendous student ensemble with musical director Mitchell Hanlon conducting a pitch-perfect 12-piece pit 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.)
Leading ladies Denton and Chelsea have both the acting chops and the sensational pipes to bring the glamorous Lilli and the bubbly Lois to memorable life, Denton showing off a gorgeous legit soprano matched by Chelsea’s Broadway belt, and the latter proves herself quite a dancer to boot.
Lemire and Carbajal couldn’t be more scene-stealingly delightful as a pair of gangsters-turned-Shakespeareans, especially in the hilarious “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” which comes complete with two built-in encores.
Elyssa Alexander (Hattie) and Antwone S. Barnes (Paul) 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 some snazzy footwork in “Too Darn Hot,” one of the most exciting twelve-minute-long dance sequence in the history of The Great White Way, and a showcase for a talented song-and-dance ensemble that includes Lacey Beegun, Cody Bianchi, Evan Borboa (Stagehand 2, Cab Driver), Elizabeth Campbell, Quentin Carbajal (Stagehand 1, Musician), Madeline Ellingson, Anyssa Navarro (Wardrobe Lady, Quartet Singer, Nathaniel Perry (Stagehand 3), Alexis Chanel Ritchey (Quartet Singer), Kellianne Safarik (Quartet Singer), Erin Tierney, and Ellie Wyman (Quartet Singer).
Dynamic up-and-comers Dylan David Farris (Riley/Hortensio) and Brian Whitehill (Flynt/Gremio) join Dunn and Chelsea for “Tom, Dick, And Harry,” a dance sequence which showcases all four in pizzazzy song-and-dance mode.
Timmy Jasperson is terrific as crusty old General Harrison Howell, even minus Howell’s usual “From This Moment On” duet with Lilli. Additional tiptop support is offered by Gavin Burrell as every theater’s inevitable “Pops,” by Taylor May Hartsfield as stressed-out stage manager Rhonda, and especially by Spenser Micetich, doubling as company member Harry Trevor and as Kate and Bianca’s harried dad Baptista Minola.
Still, if CSUF’s Kiss Me Kate can be said to “belong” to any two performers, then those two are leading men Gardner and Dunn, the former possessing the assurance, magnetism, and panache of a star twice his age (with vocal chops to match), the latter a charismatic a song-and-dance man blending equal parts athleticism and grace in the grand Broadway/Hollywood tradition.
Kiss Me Kate looks pretty darned splendid thanks to Mauri Smith’s National Tour-caliber sets, Jayne Dutra’s vivid lighting design, Taylor Donham’s Technicolorrific costumes, and Chauna Goldberg’s topnotch hair and makeup. Sound designer Iris Zacarias makes every orchestral note and sung syllable sound crystal clear.
Eve Himmelheber is assistant/associate director and speech/dialect coach. Debra Garcia Lockwood is production manager and stage management/lighting design supervisor. Chloe Haack is stage manager and Trixie Hong, Melanie McDonald, and Y-Nhu Tran are assistant stage managers.
Though times have changed since Kiss Me Kate first saw the lights of Broadway way back in 1948, the musical’s classic Shakespearean show-within-a-show, its brilliant Cole Porter score, and the Spewacks’ deliciously snappy patter continue to make this late-‘40s gem an ageless crowd-pleaser.
It most certainly is just that as performed, directed, and designed by the multitalented students of Cal State Fullerton.
Little Theatre, California State University, Fullerton Department of Theatre & Dance, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton.
December 13, 2014
Photos: Mark Ramont