SMOOCHIN' THE SHREW 


Full disclosure: I performed in Kiss Me, Kate some years ago in my high school's senior-year musical. I didn't get the lead. Drat! But our director gave me lots of chorus work. Years later, I performed the show's principal tunes in several Cole Porter revues. So the melodies have been spinning around my head for decades, and I have been known to break out into refrain. Before entering the Orlando Shakespeare Theater's current production, my wife cautioned me, "No singing along." Drat, again!

Musical theater fans consider the 1948 opus, with book by Sam and Bella Spewack and music and lyrics by Cole Porter, to be one of Broadway's greatest treasures. The original production, starring Alfred Drake as Fred Graham (the egocentric producer, director and ham actor) and Patricia Morison, as Lilli Vanessi (the tempestuous leading lady), ran for more than a thousand performances and was the first Broadway cast recording to be released on a long-playing vinyl disc. An MGM movie version in 1953 paired Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, and a well-regarded 1999 Broadway revival starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie became a multiple Tony Award—winner.

The show's plot is designed around a play within a play. Fred's theater troupe is staging a musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and as the story unfolds, we learn that the backstage lives of its main characters mirror their onstage personas. Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate are warring spouses, and Bill/Lucentio and Lois/Bianca are a pair of flirtatious and misbehaving second bananas. But the yarn is largely secondary to Porter's sometimes-jaunty, sometimes-lyric score, as well as his propensity for the most outrageously erudite verses. Who else would have had the audacity to rhyme "puberty" with "Schuberty," or "Sanka" with "Bianca"?

The Orlando Shakespeare Theater company, under the stage direction of Patrick Flick and the musical direction of Charles Johnson, serves the show admirably, tearing into Porter's jazzy tunes with aplomb and giving its comic moments their due. Steven Patterson cuts a fine figure as the put-upon Fred, who must guide his thespian charges through opening night while keeping Lilli from walking out of the show mid-act. Patterson doesn't have quite the mellifluous baritone called for in the part, but still manages to sell his numbers via his superior acting chops. Jean Tafler is a more accomplished vocalist and, as Lilli, comes closer to the true Porter prototype.

Dana Baráthy, as Lois, scores in the show-stopper "Always True to You in My Fashion," and Bob Dolan and Brandon Roberts do their Damon Runyon—like best as the gangsters hired to squeeze Fred into paying a gambling debt he doesn't actually owe. Special mention must go to Andrew Cao, who brings the second act alive with his energetic performance in choreographer Lea Andrew's most lively dance number, "Too Darn Hot."

Though not a perfect rendition of the beloved musical — occasionally the principals lack the emotional commitment that the love stories require, and the production numbers, while adequate, do not always bring down the house — OST's season-opening foray into the Porter oeuvre is welcome and appealing. And it is so much better than my school memories. Drat, yet again!

arts@orlandoweekly.com

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