Saturday, June 24, 2006

Kiss Me Kate (Cain Park)

‘KISS ME KATE’ off-mark at Cain Park

Cole Porter, who wrote the music and lyrics for ‘KISS ME KATE,’ now on stage at Cain Park, is noted for his witty, sophisticated and barbed words. He takes ordinary language and makes it extra-ordinary.

His shows contain hit song after hit song. For example, his musical ‘OUT OF THIS WORLD’ included "From This Moment On" and "I Am Loved." ‘CAN-CAN’ rendered, "I Am In Love" and "I Love Paris." The score of ‘SILK STOCKINGS’ included ’"All Of You" and "Paris Loves Lovers."

The score for ‘KISS ME, KATE’ includes such standards as, "Another Openin’, Another Show", "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", "I Hate Men", "So In Love" and "Too Darn Hot."

The show, which opened in 1948, ran for 1,077 performances on Broadway, and was made into a popular 1953 MGM film.

It tells the tale of two once-married, now-divorced musical theater actors who are performing opposite each other in a Broadway-bound musical version of William Shakespeare's ‘THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.’ The duo develops an emotional war mid-performance. The only thing keeping the show together are threats from a pair of gangsters who are intent on collecting a debt which is to be paid for by box office receipts. In classic escapist musical comedy fashion, madness ensues, and the lovers ultimately reconcile.

To be successful, a production of ‘KISS ME KATE’ must be able to create the intense zaniness of the characters, stress Porter’s wonderfully witty lyrics, make the characters so real that they become bigger than life, and create a visual illusion that sparkles. Unfortunately, the Cain Park production generally fails on all of these levels.

The very young cast simply doesn’t look or sound right. Characters, such as a military general, can’t be portrayed by an early twenty year-old. Especially one who attempts a General Douglas MacArthur imitation without the slightest sense of who the General was other than a stereotype of his visual appearance.

The staging must create appealing and realistic stage pictures. Standing in straight lines, singing directly to the audience (ignoring that love songs are sung by the lovers to each other, not directed at the audience) does not create the right setting for Porter.

The most surprising thing about the production is that it is directed by the very talented Carol Dunne. Last season Dunne directed Cain Park’s smash hit, ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD,’ which I thought was one of the very best musicals in the local area. Somehow Dunne seems to have gotten side-tracked. Maybe it was the use of such a young cast, but that was her casting choice. In productions of such shows as ‘HAIR,’ ‘GREASE’ or ‘RENT’ the age of cast members might not have been a problem, but in KISS ME KATE it is. The age of the characters is basically written into the script. They can’t be fudged.

As usual, Martin Cespedes’s choreography was excellent, but the execution was left wanting. Part of the problem was Russ Borski’s set which pushed the entire set close to the apron of the stage, giving the dancers little space to move. This created a cramped look which led to visual chaos as performers were squashed together, sometimes even running into each other.

In the lead roles, Steel Burkhardt (Fred Graham/Petruchio) displayed a nice singing voice, but like his counterpart Emily Krieger (Lilli Vanessi/Katharine Minola) there were places where they off-key. They both, as did most of the cast, sang words, ignoring the meanings behind the words.

Burkhardt’s other problem was his surface level character development. He just was not believable in the role. It may have been the difficulty in portraying someone of the character’s age or it may have been a lack of understanding of the nuances of the role.

Krieger fared better in her acting, though her characterization lacked the consistency of the necessary real and feigned shrewness. The duo did have a wonderful moment during the scene where Petruchio tames Katherine.

Katie Greiner (Lois Lane/Bianca) and Cornelius Bethea (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio) never developed clear characterizations. Ms. Greiner’s “Always True to You in My Fashion,” usually one of the show’s highlights, illustrated little understanding of Porter’s rhythm and rhyme pattern. Bethea did not have the vocal or personality dynamics needed for the razzle-dazzle cad.

The highlights of the show were Paul Floriano (one of the few adults in the show) and Andrew Schmidt’s delightful “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and the creative “Tom, Dick, or Harry.”

Musical Director Larry Hartzell did an excellent job with the orchestra, but not so well with the chorus numbers which sometimes found the singers out of sync.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Cain Park’s ‘KISS ME KATE’ was less than a satisfying theatrical experience. The youthful cast tried hard, but was not able to create the proper mood or meaning for this Cole Porter gem.