Kiss Me Kate, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Like other musicals staged by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in recent years, Kiss Me, Kate seems like an obvious choice for Sidney Harman Hall and the big splash of holiday theatre in Washington, DC, but aligning the perfect combination of singers, dancers, sets, and stars is no easy task. Luckily for us all, under the direction of Alan Paul, this Kate is a romp in brightly colored tights and tap shoes that reminds us what we love best about golden-age musical theatre, garnished with a cheeky love letter to Shakespeare himself.
Douglas Sills as Fred Graham and Christine Sherrill as Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate, directed by Alan Paul at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Kate gives us the backstage world of chorines and chorus boys, big stars and big egos, creating what ultimately has to be an very strange night of theatre for the imagined audience of Fred Graham's musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. The backstage stories can't help but creep onstage more and more as the night progresses, adding that extra soup├žon of chaos to the popping, Technicolor-bright world from designers James Noone (Scenic), Alejo Vietti (Costume), Paul Miller (Lighting), and Justin Stasiw (Sound). The onstage Shrew is like none that I've ever seen, with Shakespeare through the lens of a 1950s screwball comedy, bedecked in the trappings of an MGM musical. It should never work, but when you add more lenses, refracting that Shakespeare through the talents of Cole Porter and Bella and Samuel Spewack's framing backstage story, somehow it all comes together in Paul's production. Midway through Act I, that theatrical alchemy produces something genuinely magical when Robyn Hurder's Bianca and her trio of suitors (Clyde Alves, Brandon Beiber, and Con O'Shea-Creal) perform "Tom, Dick, or Harry." Somehow, we manage to segue from Shakespeare to Cole Porter and into choreographer's Michele Lynch's joyous tap explosion. I couldn't stop myself from laughing in absolute delight (and I wasn't the only one- the audience around me was just as audibly charmed), and by intermission, was already planning how to incorporate tap into ALL Shakespeare (ask me about my plans for tap and King Lear!) There's a similar moment in Act II for Douglas Sills' Petruchio, holding the audience absolutely in the palm of his hand during both his soliloquy and his infectious "Where is the Life That Late I Led?".

As a fan of Sills dating back to his Tony-nominated performance in The Scarlet Pimpernel, there's no better vehicle to bring his talent to the Shakespeare Theatre than this Kate. Sills combines the charisma of an old-school movie star with a voice perfectly suited to Porter's music and a canny intelligence as his Fred Graham maneuvers to win back his leading lady, Lilli Vanessi (Christine Sherrill). His text work in the above-mentioned scene is proof enough that STC should feel free to bring him back any time for non-musical roles. Sherrill has great fun playing our leading lady in both worlds of Kate, and her "I Hate Men" is deliciously vigorous (although at times, her vocal production seems to draw on pop techniques, which can mesh oddly with Porter's musical world).

Robyn Hurder's Bianca/Lois may actually be having the most fun of anyone on stage (with the possible exception of Bob Ari and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod as a pair gangsters and unlikely thespians). She dives right into the vampy qualities of her character with genuine joy and relish, and her solo "Always True to You in My Fashion" absolutely soars. The entire ensemble does excellent work, particularly in the second Act opener, "Too Darn Hot," in which Lynch seems to answer the question, What happens to an orgy deferred? with a resounding-- It explodes, all right, right into a showstopping dance number.
The company of Kiss Me, Kate, directed by Alan Paul
at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Perhaps Paul's direction succeeds because he understands the strengths of Kiss Me, Kate so well. The entire production embraces the silliness right alongside the heart that runs deep throughout the piece. No element seems to have been given less than its due, from the comedy to the love story to the Shakespeare. I suppose I can imagine someone who wouldn't be utterly charmed by this Kate, but I'm not sure that I'd have much in common with them.  Absolutely recommended for anyone who thinks that tap shoes have a place in a classical theatre, and especially recommended to anyone who doubts it.

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