Kiss Me Kate is a musical with words and music by Cole Porter. Prior writing to this, Porter had had tremendous success with Gay Divorcee, Fifty Million Frenchmen, and most notably Anything Goes. In 1937 Porter had an equestrian accident that left him in constant pain. He eventually returned to composition but with only limited success. Hard to write cheery, breezy musicals through pain.
With the success of so-called integrated musicals like Oklahoma, where the songs were integrated into the story, Porter turned to the best story writer in the business, Shakespeare, and used the plot of The Taming of the Shrew and turned it into his most successful musical, Kiss Me Kate, winning for himself and the show the first Tony for Best Musical in 1949.
The original production starred Alfred Drake (who was an experienced Shakespearean actor), Patricia Morrison, Lisa Kirk, and Harold Lang. Since then there have been four television versions, one movie, and a very successful revival on Broadway in 1999 which was later put on film in a high-definition version from London.
The English have embraced the show more than Americans, perhaps because of the tie-in to The Bard. American productions, except for the 1999 revival, which was directed by a Brit, have had a harder go of it. I think this is because productions might have great singers, but as actors they failed to bring the Shakespeare text to full fruition.
The current production at Reprise at U.C.L.A. has more success because director Michael Michetti has directed some Shakespeare before and the two leads, Leslie Margherita and Tom Hewitt, have had some experience with English sensibilities. What is tricky about the show is that the characters are definitely American but they are performing Shakespeare.
While both Hewitt (who was so delicious in the tour of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and Leslie Margherita, who performed brilliantly last week in La Mirada’s Little Shop of Horrors, had their moments, she in “I Hate Men” and he in the reprise of “So in Love,” for me they had no chemistry as a couple. The characters of Kate and Petruchio, like Romeo and Juliet, must have the audience rooting for them to get together. Here Margherita’s Kate was too earthbound, rather bitchy, and had no real class, while Hewitt was all class but little testosterone.
I had a similar problem with the casting of Meg Gillentine as Bianca. She is too much of a standard musical comedy lead and not the ditz the role requires. Her partner Sean Martin Hingston fared better and was terrific in his dance solo. Other cast members I did like were Jerald Vincent as Paul singing “Too Darn Hot,” and Jay Brian Winnick and Hershel Sperber as the gangsters, but even they didn’t get the kind of response their song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” deserves.
Michetti’s direction was good and kept things moving. Lee Martino staged several effective dance routines. Michael Paternostro (who would have made a fine Bill Calhoun) directed the orchestra admirably though he allowed the singers to do a lot of sliding into their notes.
The audience seemed to really enjoy the show because I believe many had not seen it and were struck by the great score, the witty dialogue, and Porter’s ingenious paring of musical comedy and Shakespeare. I however did not feel so enthralled.
Kiss Me Kate will play at the Freud Playhouse on the U.C.L.A. campus until May 22.