★★★★★ - Irresistible
Dust off your Shakespeare and head over to the Judy Bayley for Nevada Conservatory Theatre’s presentation of Cole Porter’s 1948 musical “Kiss Me, Kate.” An energetic, excellent cast and live orchestra bring to life Porter’s classic music and clever lyrics and Sam and Bella Spewack’s witty book, stirring the memories and keeping the toes tapping long after the final curtain call in this bright, traditional staging.
The Tony Award-winning “Kate” was Porter’s triumphant answer to the integrated musical comedies of the reigning musical mavens of the time, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Full of funny double-entendres it’s a play within a play about divorced actor couple Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham, who reteam to star in a traveling musical production of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” as wild spitfire Katherine and the arrogant Petruchio who attempts to tame her.
There’s a subplot about Katherine’s sister Bianca and her suitor Lucentio and their offstage counterparts Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, and it pokes fun at theater types and their shenanigans. There’s even a hilarious pair of gangsters who crash the production and become cultured in the end. After a painfully fierce battle of mind and body that echoes the war of the sexes in “Shrew,” love endures and Lilli and Fred fall into each other’s arms again.
As the title implies misogyny is a prevailing theme of both shows and should be taken with a grain of salt, since women were considered to be the property of men as much in the 1950s as they were in the 1590s. And in a way, not much has changed.
Director Russell Treyz manages to downplay this troubling aspect of the tale making it almost an afterthought. Except for a select few characters the campiness inherent in the script is kept to a minimum by having the cast play their parts naturally so that it feels like the story is happening in the moment rather than through the filters of an imperfect past and exaggerated caricatures. It’s wonderfully nostalgic and modern at the same time.
Besides, the strong-willed and independent Katherine gets pre-venge before her inevitable conquering with the glorious Zipporah Peddle in the part and her masterful clear soprano attacking the memorable “I Hate Men,” an angry protest song of pseudo-feminism. Peddle’s portrayal of the materialistic diva Lilli is equally solid, giving her soft and idealistic side with the mournful “So in Love.”
The infamous battle of the sexes scene from “Shrew” (that ends with the most notorious spanking ever written for the stage) is given an impeccably choreographed (by Chris Edwards and Jack Lafferty) and uproarious treatment by Peddle and the sublime Steve Judkins as Fred/Petruchio, who plays the part with just the right amount of measured cocksureness. He’s subtly hammy yet is a calming and charismatic presence and in songs such as “Were Thine That Special Face” he inspires awe with his incredibly controlled and colorful baritone.
Madison Kisst gives the tarty Lois Lane the feel of a shy and insecure ingenue, and her singing and dancing solo “Always True to You in My Fashion” is a definite showstopper. Also a real crowd pleaser is Bianca’s courtship quartet “Tom, Dick or Harry” performed with Justin Velarde as Hortensio, Maurice Palmer as Gremio, and Lysander Abadia as Lucentio, with all three giving difficult Bob Fosse (who played Hortensio in and also choreographed on the 1953 film) style jazz solos in an effort to woo her.
Kisst and Abadia sadly don’t share much chemistry in their love duets together as Lois and Bill, and while both are endearing they could use a little more grit in their shadings. But Abadia shines with elegant, jazzy dancing and melodious singing throughout the production, and especially when he leads the chorus in a rousing rendition of “Too Darn Hot.”
Sam Cordes and Rusty Meyers as the Gangsters are a very funny delight every time they crash the show with their befuddled, expressive faces and wannabe tough-guy swagger. Their vaudevillian duet “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is a hit that brings down the house. Jack Lafferty does wonders with the small part of Ralph, creating a wacky, dandyish stage manager, and Glenn Heath does some serious, uptight strutting as General Howell.
Production values are topnotch and visually pleasing, with the dual set of Dana Moran Williams consisting of a multileveled, industrial looking backstage area and also the painted backdrops of old village buildings to represent the the Italian town of Padua for “Shrew.” Elizabeth Kline’s backstage lights are cool and shadowy and Padua lights are colorful and bright. Judy Ryerson’s costumes are a dichotomy with cheesy, harlequin style, pastel costumes for the Padua setting, and lush, well-constructed 40s era clothes for the offstage actors. One beautiful, flowered robe that Lillie wears in particular is a standout.
Music Director/Conductor Christopher Lash leads a marvelously nuanced and rich 14 piece orchestra, and Angelo Moio fills the stage with intricately detailed dancing that includes athletic jazz, ballet, waltz, and polka.
NCT’s presentation of “Kiss Me, Kate” is a wonderfully nostalgic romp.