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St. Louis

Kiss Me, Kate
Repertory Theater of St. Louis

This year's Christmas present from the Repertory Theater of St. Louis is a wonderfully splashy production of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, a masterpiece if there ever was one, with a brilliant book by Sam and Bella Spewack, based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Few shows can boast such a lineup of hit songs, from "Wunderbar" through "So In Love" and "Too Darn Hot" to "Always True To You In My Fashion," all bubbling with Cole Porter's wit and pouring out as smoothly as vintage champagne. And few shows have done such a deft job of weaving threads of a classic source with broad swatches of contemporary comedy to produce a timelessly appealing story.

The show unfolds backstage and onstage at a theater in Baltimore, during the pre-Broadway tryout of a musical version of Shakespeare's play. The producer/director/star, a hapless romantic and womanizer, and his leading lady are celebrating the one-year anniversary of their divorce. Two of the featured players are also involved in a rocky romance. A couple of gangsters are putting heat on the producer to collect a debt he doesn't think he owes. And bickering in the ranks promises to create havoc onstage. There's plenty of material for comedy here, and even though we know it's all going to come out all right, there's enough suspense to keep us eager to find out what will happen next.

Such is the power of the story that even contemporary audiences are likely to overlook the playful misogyny of its resolution. There is a moment near the end when fiery prima donna Lilli Vanessi, in character as Shakespeare's Katherine but obviously also speaking for herself, proclaims to women, "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper ..." advising them to "place your hands below your husband's foot," all by way of submitting to the advances of her ex-husband. It's the kind of thing that in another place could provoke a protest, but in this context it seems almost nostalgic.

The cast is as strong as the show, with especially fine work by husband and wife team Brian and Diane Sutherland as Lilli and her Fred, doubling as Katherine and Petruchio; Jessica Liegh Brown as the sexy Lois Lane; David Larsen as her devoted Bill; Darryl Reuben Hall as the maniacally talented dresser and dancer, Paul; and Whit Reichert as Harry and Baptista. St. Louis favorites Joneal Joplin and Steve Isom are hilarious as the two literary gangsters; their "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" is the comic high point of a very funny show.

Director Victoria Bussert keeps the traffic flowing smoothly on the busy stage; Ralph Perkins creates lively and entertaining dance numbers, especially the second-act opener, "Too Darn Hot," which Mr. Hall sets ablaze. Costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis outdoes herself with brilliant colors and fanciful takes on Italian Renaissance outfits for the inner play and genuinely nifty clothes for the "real" characters, especially the two gangsters and General Harrison Howell.

The orchestra, conducted by Dale Rieling, catches the spirit of Porter's music beautifully and plays with great energy. Opening-night gremlins in the sound system caused some unexpected changes in volume, and the balance between singers and orchestra was uncertain, especially in the first act. These problems will surely have been worked out by now.

We don't often have the chance to fall in love with Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate all over again, as Lilli and Fred do with each other. It's a pleasure to be able to report that this production, with its outstanding cast and great sensitivity for the material, is thoroughly deserving of our affection. It will run through December 28; for ticket information, call 314-968-4925 or visit the Rep online at repstl.org.


-- Robert Boyd

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