Despite Solid Performance, 'Kiss Me Kate' Has Issues These Days

By: Ellen Chahey

Topics: Local Theater

As scene from "Kiss Me Kate" at the Academy. COURTESY PHOTO

Human beings complicate their lives beyond all telling. Every one of us knows about love-hate relationships. Every one of us knows, even if only at safe distance, about how such relationships can explode into violence. Every one of us knows that there are moments in human life when even the worst of things – for example, when love-hate relationships explode into violence – can still have a humorous aspect.

So that’s the background of the classic Broadway musical “Kiss Me Kate,” based in turn upon Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” that is currently offered at The Academy of Performing Arts in Orleans. In this production, “Kiss Me Kate” comes across by turns funny in a lowbrow sense, witty in the highbrow, brilliantly performed and directed, has gorgeous music and lyrics by Cole Porter and a great book by Sam and Bella Spewack – and still it raises the question: Does hitting someone, even if you think you love them or they love you, change things between you? And what, if anything, is the difference when a woman hits a man or a man hits a woman? Does one kind of hitting ever justify the other?

Yes, “Kiss Me Kate” involves quite a bit of gender politics and of what family counselors call “intimate violence,” and if you go you need to think about such things and the people among us on Cape Cod who suffer intimate violence not on the stage but in their own homes every day of their lives.

And still, this is a great play to see at the Academy because of the outstanding cast who bring to life the humor and wit and gorgeous script and music. There’s a lot more to human relations than hitting each other. There is, for instance, the affection of theater people for one another and for “another opening, another show,” a love that is celebrated with the very first musical number

You can hear the flawless accompaniment, all by himself, on a piano, of Christopher Morris, of a complex score. He not only played beautifully, but at just the right volume for the audience to hear all the beautiful voices of the cast deliver, with excellent enunciation, Porter’s genius songs.

You can watch amazing performances by Sara Sneed as Lili Vanessi/Bianca, Rob Marshall in last weekend’s performances only but now to be played by Christopher Schultz (Fred Graham/Petruchio); and Alex Valentine (Paul/Hortensio, and I believe a first-timer in Orleans); and also by Geof Newton and Will Oxtoby as a pair of gangsters. All of them left their audience with never a dull moment with the way they can sing, dance, and act.

Sneed is known for her beautiful singing voice, and boy, does she risk it here with her portrayal of the shrieking, pot-throwing, stool-overturning Shrew who just might also have a reason to be angry at someone who shares the stage with her. “I Hate Men” was just brilliant, but she also glowed with standards like “Wunderbar” and “So In Love.”

Her foil, Fred, reprises “So In Love” tenderly, so that anyone with a heart can relate. Paul (Valentine) stars in “Too Darn Hot,” along with the company; please, directors, bring this personable triple-threat guy back often. The gangsters (Newton and Oxtoby) provide comic relief and they cap their role hilariously as they deliver “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” a send-up in rhyme of play titles from Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Another standout was Lois (Anne Vohs on Saturdays and Sundays), who belted “Always True to You in My Fashion.” She delivered funny lyrics so that we could understand and appreciate them, and we did.

Back to my first point. How sad that the penultimate song in this show is Lilli/Kate’s “I Am Ashamed That Women are so Simple.” I am angry that Fred/Petruchio starves her, deprives her of sleep, and spanks her “until you are gentle.” An anger and violence problem she does have in Act One. Does more anger and violence gentle her – or do the moments such as the one when she thinks he has sent her a copy of her wedding bouquet?

As always, Peter Earle, director; Chris Morris, musical director; Geof Newton (technical director and lighting/sound); stage manager and technical operations Katherine Petitt-Quigley; and projection and costumes director Ellen Birmingham come through with just the right solutions to present this complex story of a play-within-a-play.

A bit of trivia: we’re always discovering either Shakespeare or the King James Bible as the source of common expressions today, and it looks as though “The Taming of the Shrew” gave us the notion of “kill with kindness.”

This performance of a mid-20th century play based upon a 16th century play might help us to work toward some conversation about violence, kindness, and the very complicated issues of human intimacy.

In his director’s letter in the performance’s playbill, Peter Earle wrote, “I often joke that, ‘our audience sits so close to the action they need to know their lines…Television and movies and, yes, all the downloadable entertainment certainly fuels the entertainment industry and yet they can never compare to a heartfelt, compassionate and energetic live performance.”

You’ll get such an experience if you attend “Kiss Me Kate” at the Academy.

DETAILS:

“Kiss Me, Kate”

At the Academy of Performing Arts

Through April 8.

Information and reservations: 508-255-1963, apacape.org.