Brushing Up Shakespeare With Cabrillo’s “Kiss Me, Kate”

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

Over the years, Cabrillo Music Theatre has staged just about all of Broadway’s classic musicals, but one that they had not yet attempted was “Kiss Me, Kate.” Thankfully, they can now scratch that one off their bucket list, with a production that rivals anything seen on the Broadway stage. Incredulously, the Fred Kavli Theater was only half-filled on Thursday night, and any theatergoers who did not attend any of the 9 performances of this wonderful show should be bent over Petruchio’s knee and soundly spanked.

With one of the musical theater’s most glorious scores, Cole Porter’s greatest in a long career of successes, “Kiss Me, Kate” has just about everything: a love story, rambunctious dance numbers, high (and low) comedy, rapier wit, and scintillating production numbers. With the esteemed Broadway superstar Davis Gaines (“Phantom of the Opera”) anchoring the cast, the flawless production is top-notch at every quarter, from the three Actor’s Equity stars to the talented local performers in the ensemble.

“Kate” was the hit of the 1948-49 Broadway season, the brainchild of a young stage manager named Arnold Saint Subber and playwright Bella Spewack, who strong-armed Porter, who was at a low point in his career and ready to write songs for soap operas, into penning the score. (For the full back-story on the creation of “Kiss Me, Kate,” see our October 10 blog.)

Gaines, of course, is simply fabulous as the egocentric but idealistic director/star Fred Graham. If you can imagine “Seinfeld’s” J. Peterman on Broadway, that’s how Gaines plays Fred, with a roguish braggadocio that makes you believe that even his everyday conversation is delivered as if he were on stage. Gaines and Victoria Strong, as his spurned ex-wife Lilli Vanessi, make formidable adversaries, especially in their on-stage fisticuffs during a scene in “The Taming of the Shrew,” which Fred is staging. As Petruchio says in “Shrew,” “I am as peremptory as she proud-minded; and where two raging fires meet together, they do consume the thing that feeds their fury.”

The secondary coupling of Reba Buhr as the delightfully ditzy Lois Lane and Scott Reardon as a diminutive but spry Bill Calhoun is also excellent, with Buhr delivering Lois’ fickle “Always True to You in My Fashion” with great spark and flair. Buhr has one of those voices that you rarely hear on the stage, penetrating but melodious, a kewpie doll with hot sauce. The supporting cast is no less outstanding, including Timothy Reese as flustered stage manager Ralph and Cabrillo mainstays Ronald Rezac (Harry) and Steve Perren (General Howell) providing solid performances as well. The mutli-talented Lamont Whitaker, with booming voice and athletic dancing prowess, virtually explodes off the stage in his atomically charged performance of “Too Darn Hot,” which opens Act II.  Watch Whitaker – he’s going places, and probably sooner rather than later. Other familiar local faces are sprinkled among the ensemble, but especially noteworthy are Michael Byrne as an aerodynamic Gremio and Kurt Kemper, a perennial supporting player who always provides agility and superb comic instincts. To use basketball terminology (and why not, considering his height), Kemper is Cabrillo’s most valuable “6th man.”

If the production has a weakness, it would be the two gangsters who are after Fred to pay off gambling I.O.U.s forged by Bill Calhoun. The pair, played by Tom McMahon and Steve Greene, were relatively underwhelming in roles that wouldn’t be harmed by overemphasizing the stereotypical Damon Runyon characterizations. Even their traveling curtain duet, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” which is supposed to be the so-called “Eleven O’Clock” hit of the show, was not as sharply performed as could be expected. Not only were they not sufficiently menacing, their performances could have used some extra physical shtick to pump up their characters. Most of the time, they just stood around.

Darryl Archibald led the superb large orchestra, which filled the theater with the marvelous score. Special kudos to trumpeter Chris Maurer, for his sultry on-stage horn work during the “Too Darn Hot” sequence. Richard Israel’s direction is as seamless as you will find. The dazzling choreography is by John Todd.

I was informed that the relatively disappointing turnout will result in Cabrillo thinking twice before performing any more non-Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals from Broadway’s so-called “Golden Era” of the 1940s and ’50s. If this is the case, it would be a monumental tragedy for Ventura County theater. If you are a fan of classic theater, I would encourage you to tell five people about “Kiss Me, Kate” and get them to come out to the theater this weekend. Shows such as this are what musical theater are all about, and one can’t be considered a true Broadway devotee without experiencing all of the classic shows such as this one. Don’t take outstanding companies like Cabrillo for granted. Its consistently excellent productions need to be supported by the public. Drop whatever you’re doing and come to the theater!

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Cabrillo Music Theatre’s “Kiss Me, Kate” plays through this Sunday. For dates and show times, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.

 

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