Kate is a sharp-tongued shrew. Petruchio is the self-absorbed essence of machismo. The fun in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” and Cole Porter’s musical updating of the comedy, is watching the two battle each other, a battle that, if it is to work, must be of equals. Unfortunately, in the Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s pleasant production of Porter’s first true “book” musical, Kate, as played by a fiery Mary McNulty, is totally up to the task and is ready to take on all comers. David Sattler, as Petruchio, is blessed with a marvelous voice but, alas, wouldn’t win a swordfight (or a wrestling match) with the head-strong Kate. He tames her, because that’s what the script calls for, but I wonder how many people in the preview audience actually bought into this?
There’s a lot to like about this production, starting with McNulty’s performance. However, as directed by Allegra Libonati, it seems to lack a central focus. This may be that the show has yet to “set” – in other words, the actors are still finding their ways into their characters. As the run proceeds, focus may be sharpened. It may also be an inherent problem with the show’s book, written by Sam and Bella Spewack, which was given a refined reworking by screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley for the 1953 MGM film (she focused on the Lilli-Fred story and used Shakespeare’s play as an extension).
Basically, this is a play within a play format, for we have a troupe of actors set to perform Shakespeare’s comedy in Baltimore – so we have the storyline of Petruchio attempting to woo Kate while Bianca (Rachel Maclsaac), Kate’s younger sister, is more than eager to marry and Kate’s father, Baptista (Bradley Mott) is desperate to get Kate off his hands. Then there’s the second story, for the actors playing Kate (a.k.a. Lilli) and Petruchio (a.k.a. Fred) were once married and are, to say the least, antagonistic, while the actress playing Bianca is being romanced by Bill (Tim Falter – who also plays Lucentio). Bill has a gambling problem and is in debt to a mobster who sends his two henchmen to the theater to collect on the debt. The only problem is, Bill signed Fred’s name to the IOU. The two storylines interweave, with a happy resolution to both.
Porter’s score is luscious and lyrical, although some of the numbers seem to be force-fed into the show, chief among them the second act opener, “Too Darn Hot.” It’s a great set-piece well-choreographed by Doug Shankman, but it has little or nothing to do with advancing the plot of the musical. There’s also a certain split-personality feel to “We Open in Venice” – the characters are in “Shrew” costumes but their lament deals with the drudgery of a troupe on tour, but Kate, Petruchio, Bianca and Lucentio aren’t actors and aren’t on tour. All one can do is not question the logic of the number, just sit back and enjoy the performances.
Other numbers are not head-scratchers, especially “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” a duet by the two gangsters, played by Brett Alters and Brian Stillman, who get involved in the Shakespeare production and become reluctant thespians. It’s witty and evokes a vaudeville style that is always a crowd-pleaser.
There are some production decisions (an observer never really knows who has made them) that are peas under the princess’s bed. The first is having Maclsaac play Bianca as if she is Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” (all indications are that she would be great in the role). The “Nu Yawk” accent works when she’s playing Lois, but it’s off-putting when she’s supposed to be a winsome maid in Padua. Then there’s some lighting decisions (apparently made by lighting designer Devon Allen but, then again…) that are confusing, chief among them the scene in which Lilli/Kate reads a note that accompanied flowers she thought were sent to her by Fred but were actually intended for another. Reading this note drives a lot of the animosity in the second act, so it’s important, but McNulty is blocked extreme stage right and is almost in shadow – for those not familiar with the musical, Kate/Lilli’s subsequent actions might seem a bit unmotivated. There are other moments when lighting cues seem just a bit off, but these will probably be ironed out as the run progresses.
STONC’s “Kiss Me Kate” is certainly a pleasant way to spend a summer’s evening. Backed by 11 musicians (a fairly large orchestra for a local theater), the cast is eager and engaging, and there are moments that can’t help but bring a smile to the face. It’s scheduled for a one-month run, so one can only suppose that focus will be sharpened (perhaps via director’s notes) and minor technical problems resolved. If nothing else, the Cole Porter score is worth the price of admission, since it offers such classics as “Wundebar,” “So in Love,” the delightful “I Hate Men” and the saucy “Always True to You in My Fashion.”
“Kiss Me Kate” runs through July 29. For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org