Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Much of the fun of Kiss Me, Kate lies in multiple storylines and double casting of characters who often cannot resist bleeding one story into another. Fred Graham is opening in 1948 Baltimore a musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and he has somehow convinced his ex, Lilli Vanessi, to join him in the starring role of Katherine to his Petruchio. The bitterness of a divorce keeps emerging while the electricity of attraction still shows sparks. Chorus members Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, who double in Shrew as lovers Bianca and Lucentio, are hot for each other both behind stage and in steamy numbers on set. Throw in a $10K note that Bill has signed in his boss's name (Mr. Graham), two gangsters who show up to collect from the unsuspecting Graham, a brainstorm by Graham to use the gangsters to help him win back Lilli, and a MacArthur-looking general who marches in to save his fiancée Lilli (who may have decided she does not want to be saved), and we have the formula for a hilarious story to parallel and overlap the ongoing Shakespeare tale. Add Core Porter's iconic songs and rousing chorus numbers, and bingowhat a night of theatre!
The most fun in this particular production occurs every time the full, large ensemble takes the stage by storm. The show starts with high energy and eye-popping effects in "Another Op'nin', Another Show" as twenty or so actors, stagehands, costume ladies, and chorus types gather backstage, all in groupings busily attending their pre-opening tasks while singing and dancing with full gusto and grit. The natural groupings that mix and match in this rambunctious delight is what also makes the opening of act two, "Too Darn Hot" so wonderful. The same groupings gather in the hot alley outside the stage door, fanning themselves while responding to a song and dance challenge by chorus member Paul (the high-stepping, dynamic, totally classy Isaiah Boyd). All shapes and sizes of ensemble members go through a series of various dance routines that sizzle and snap.
Nicole Helfer's choreography and Dolores Duran-Cefalu's musical direction combine for stunning results as this ensemble again and again delivers rousing numbers throughout. The colorful, period-and-comedy-appropriate costumes of Valerie Emmi and the versatile use of natural backstage and sets that roll quickly from Ford's Theatre dressing rooms to the Italian scene of Padua (with a slight, opening-night hitch) are icing on the ensemble's cake.
In smaller sets, the same excellence prevails in routines that are often physically demanding and athletic as well as beautiful and mesmerizing. Leah Shesky, Zach Padlo, Marc Gonzalez, and Charles Fields knock "Tom, Dick, or Harry" out of the ballpark with cartwheels, fast dance steps, and a fun line-up of three solid singing voices to woo Bianca to "marry me, marry me, marry me." Zach Padlo returns in his Shakespearean role of Petruchio to one of the night's true highlights, "Bianca," as he sings with pleasing voice and dances with suave, sexy, and scorching moves. He is ably joined by a line of eight women who echo his lyrics, whistle in accompaniment, and move with fine-tuned coordination.
Individually, several actors solidly deserve the spotlight that comes their way in solo numbers. As Lilli, Amie Shapiro brings at times a deeply rich, right out of the romantic 1940s voice to numbers like "So in Love" while then transforming with snap and snarl into Katherine as a wonderful terror singing "I Hate Men" (belting the number while chasing, clawing, and kicking her suitors all over and off the stage). Likewise, Leah Shesky's Bianca sells completely "Always True to You in My Fashion") in voice and especially in blistery, long-legged dance moves while as Lois Lane, she couples with her boyfriend Bill (Zach Padlo) for more artistry with long limbs and sexy voice on "Why Can't You Behave?" As the duo of gangsters, Ken Bosell and Ray D'Ambrosio do not at all disappoint as they deliver the expected vaudeville routine silliness and two encores of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."
Two key flaws mar the otherwise ridiculously fun evening. The leading man in both stories, Daniel Cameron, fails to sell either his Bill Graham or his Petruchio. In singing voice, he has some early promise of winning us over but does not show enough variation or solid surety to score when it really counts (like in his torch song "So in Love"). And, like most of the cast, when leaving the music and going just to the book, things go downhill for him and for others. Lines are too often delivered as if in the first or second rehearsal reading. In Shakespeare's Shrew, missing is any evidence of familiarity with the Bard and his iambic pentameter lines. Timing of comedy, when spoken, is missing over and again with lines that should produce laughs falling flat to the floor and remaining there untouched. It appears, at least on the opening night, that much rehearsal attention was given (with lots of payoff for director Milissa Carey) to the songs and the dances but not enough was provided for the in-between when comedic dialogue needs to crackle and pop and Shakespeare lines need more than bland, perfunctory recitation.
While not all is perfect, Broadway by the Bay's Kiss Me, Kate certainly has enough fully going for it to be enticing for anyone who loves Cole Porter's big numbers, his clever lyrics, and a double-edged story of life behind the scenes of an acting troupe.
Broadway by the Bay's Kiss Me, Kate continues through November 22 at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City. Tickets are available at www.broadwaybythebay.org or 650-579-5565.