The comic spirit is sledgehammered into submission in New Canaan’s musically lovely but comically vapid rendering of Cole Porter’s great “Kiss Me Kate.” Substituting busy-ness for genuine humor drags down the production.
It’s saved near the end by an hilarious performance of the surefire “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” by the show’s two gangsters, played by Brett Alters and Brian Silliman. Thanks, gents.
Sam and Bella Spewack’s book juxtaposes a troupe of strolling players performing a tryout of “The Taming of the Shrew” in Baltimore. The onstage action — the wooing of the virago Katharine by the determined Petruchio — is mirrored in the love/hate relationship of Lilli and Fred, the two actors who portray those characters and the secondary couple, the flirty Lois (also Bianca) and inveterate gambler Bill (also Lucentio)
Director Allegra Libonati gussies it all up with a cart-pulling donkey, several instances of breaking the fourth wall by having actors converse with front-row customers, songs “illustrated” and “Shrew” performed as if by purposely bad actors.
There are compensations. Thanks to choreographer Doug Shankman, the dancing is accomplished and “Too Darn Hot” sizzles. Mary McNulty is a fiery Lilli/Katharine with a gorgeous voice. David Sattler sings beautifully as Fred/Petruchio though his acting is both wooden and nigh inarticulate. Tim Falter is a sympathetic Bill/Lucentio and Rachel MacIsaac a cute, over-the-top Lois/Bianca.
What matters most is the score, one of Porter’s finest: “So in Love,” “Were Thine That Special Face, “Always True to You in My Fashion,” even “I Am Ashamed That Woman Are So Simple,” the misogynistic aria, taken directly from Shakespeare, that no one ever knows what to do with. (“Put your hand ‘neath the sole of your husband’s foot” – indeed!). Yet, under music director Kenneth Gartman, the 11-piece orchestra more than makes up for the evening’s shortcomings.