Perhaps the greatest curtain raiser in Broadway history as well as a show-biz anthem, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” also kicks off the summer season at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse with its op’nin of the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate, the semi-spoof of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Yet somehow the song doesn’t feel entirely exclusive to MGR, since Kate is not just another show but also the launch of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, which bids to become a Really Big Deal in Central New York summers.
In an otherwise dazzling and flawless evening, only one thing went amiss. Artistic director Ed Sayles had so many sponsors and benefactors to thank that he really couldn’t remember them all. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t highly charged, however. When Sayles threw out the trademark carnation to the audience, it reached to the 27th row.
If this Kiss Me, Kate is the measure, Sayles, in running the festival, will be heading off in new directions some of the time, but at base he is building on what he has already mastered. The most striking aspect of this production is how many familiar faces it brings back, people with proven track records who also enjoy audience recognition. It feels almost like a repertory show.
“Another Op’nin’,” for example, is the only solo for Hattie, usually sung by an African-American woman who can deliver the volume. As Motormouth Maybelle in last summer’s Hairspray, Karen Marie Richardson established her creds and she launches Kiss Me Kate with power and reassurance.
Six members of the cast are returning favorites, starting with baritone Christopher Carl (formerly Javert in Les Miserables and DeBris in The Producers) as Fred/Petruchio and soprano Julie Dingman Evans (Mother in Ragtime, Judy in A Chorus Line) in the title role as Lilli/Katherine. Backstage, Sayles links arms with some of his favorite collaborators: music director Corinne Aquilina, who honors the compelling lyricism of the score as well as the subtle allusiveness, and choreographer Lori Leshner, who introduces some Agnes de Mille-like high stepping to some of the Western (yes, Western, not Italian) production numbers.
The several premises of Kiss Me, Kate will be known to most theatergoers, even though the show’s expensive production demands prevent it from being done to death. The idea for Bella and Samuel Spewack’s book was once an inside joke that’s now open to everyone. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, long-ago dominant figures in the American theater, usually played opposite each other but were infamous for their backstage battling. Once it was a life-imitates-art staging of The Taming of the Shrew.
Secondly, Cole Porter may have been 56 and badly crippled when Kate was written, but he was eager to prove he wasn’t over the hill with some energetically contemporary numbers, like the jazzy show-stopper “Too Darn Hot” that begins the second act. It’s a great solo for singer-dancer Thay Floyd, one of the few newcomers in the cast.
Porter also wanted to show he was hip to the Rodgers and Hammerstein transformation of the musical, where songs grow dramatically out of the action while rooted with the character. Thus, we have Lilli’s big solo, “I Hate Men,” and right next to it as an ex-wife yearning for reconciliation, the love ballad, “So in Love.” Leshner’s choreography includes some well-timed contretemps for unlucky males passing by in “I Hate Men.”
But the ever-witty Porter could not discard his taste for spoof. So Fred and Lilli just happen to remember that among their first roles was a Viennese operetta, leading to the first act’s “Wunderbar,” as well as the tribute to the soft shoe of vaudeville in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
Two aspects will make this Kiss Me, Kate feel different from other productions. One is that the play-within-the-play, The Taming of the Shrew, is not set in renaissance Verona, as Shakespeare said it was, but is instead reset in the American West. The actual Hollywood movie that restages Shrew is the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara vehicle McLintock (1963), but costumer Garth Dunbar and scenic designer Czerton Lim have prudently elected to go with the visual style of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, including a quotation of the hooting call from Fistful of Dollars (1964).
Secondly, director Sayles has left in all the Truman-era trivia, perhaps as a test of audience memory. Gags about the president’s maladroitness at the keyboard still work, as do digs about his daughter Margaret’s need for singing lessons. But the Who Wants to be a Millionaire backbreaker is: Will Dick Tracy let the Big Frost escape?
Christopher Carl and Julie Dingman Evans richly inhabit the leads in every aspect, sharp-tongued in battle and cuddly in embrace. Evans brings a voice with operatic range and expression, well-employed in her solos, especially “So in Love,” but also in the usually neglected “Women Are So Simple,” late in the second act. Carl’s hardy richness covers for the character’s bluster, making his monologue “Where is the Life That Late I Led” more admirable than merely haughty.
The female second lead, naughty Lois Lane/Bianca, is written to be a scene-stealer with her celebration of unfaithfulness, “Always True to You (In My Fashion).” The very tall and gorgeous Mary Claire King might be familiar to MGR audiences from last summer’s Hairspray but also as a Syracuse University Drama Department student, where her distinctive presence was memorable in Cabaret, Rent and The Cradle Will Rock. An accomplished dancer, she also pulls off a family-friendly striptease in “Tom, Dick or Harry.”
The subplot, in which Fred is being extorted to pay an IOU he never wrote, may not generate much dramatic tension but it allows for the welcome reappearance of two natty, Runyonesque gangsters, played by Bruce Warren and Bob Frame. No one in the audience thinks they present much of a threat, but they generate another kind of anticipation. Over the past few summers Warren has built up a passionate following for his character roles, such as his best-ever Moonface Martin in last summer’s Anything Goes. His sidekick Frame, however, is not to be one-upped. He’s been a stalwart at MGR for years, often as a lighting designer, but also in flavorful small roles, such as Pap Finn in Big River. Their “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” delivers all the ecstasy the crowd demands.
Kiss Me Kate bodes well for the first summer of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival. Artistic director Ed Sayles is at the top of his game.
This production runs through June 20. See Times Table for information.