The Syracuse University Drama Department puts its best foot forward with the season opener of Kiss Me Kate. Make that more than three dozen feet, since this hoofers’ hoedown is keyed to the evergreen sophistication of Cole Porter’s compositions.
Porter’s Broadway smash offers a serendipitous merging of class and crass. In the clever book by Sam and Bella Spewack, producer, director and actor Fred Graham (played by Ezekiel Edmonds) attempts to mount The Taming of the Shrew: The Musical, a revision of the Shakespeare farce, during a 1948 Baltimore tryout. But he needs star power to pull it off, specifically his ex-wife Lilli Vanessa (Jodi Snyder), a Hollywood drama queen with the same amount of egotistical overkill as Fred.
The battle of the sexes escalates as Fred dallies with ingenue Lois Lane (Charity Van Tassel), while Lois’ actor-boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Brian Sandstrom) has a gambling jones that results in a visit from a pair of amiable thugs (Adam Segrave and Richard Westfahl) who attempt to collect a $10,000 IOU. Art imitates life as the offstage drama spills onto the onstage performances of Shrew, especially in the snarky confrontations between Fred’s Petruchio and Lilli’s Katherine. As everyone in the audience knows, however, these divas are made for each other.
Despite the show’s 2 ½ -hour length, director David Lowenstein never allows the pace to flag, as he expertly seesaws between Kate’s modern-day mayhem and the Shrew scenes. Costume designer Meggan Camp likewise performs double duty, with her creations of Shrew’s eye-filling, Bard-era togs and the stylish late-1940s apparel worn backstage by the Kate players.
Kiss Me Kate has plenty of breathing room amid the larger confines of Syracuse Stage’s Archbold Theater, which comes in handy for the intricate dance steps orchestrated by choreographer Andrea Leigh-Smith, while music director Brian Cimmet is in charge of the orchestra pit of 10 musicians. Just about every Porter tune turns out to be a showstopper, with both acts opening with high-powered dance numbers. Kelsey Brodeur is a brassy delight as she leads the cast for “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” and the second act kicks off with Jon Paul Roby and company getting sultry for “Too Darn Hot.”
Adam Segrave and Richard Westfahl as the scene-stealing gangsters (introduced by Fred as “promising graduates of the Group Theatre,” which must have brought the house down in 1948) maximize the naughtiness of Porter’s lyrics in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” including, “If she says your behavior is heinous/ Kick her right in the Coriolanus.” And while romantic leads Ezekiel Edmonds and Jodi Snyder ably supply the rambunctious emotional center, the supporting lovebirds played by Charity Van Tassel and Brian Sandstrom add to the splashy merriment.