Any time a theatre presents a Cole Porter musical, expectations run high. After all, we’re dealing with a giant of the American musical theatre. Porter is one of the most iconic and sophisticated composer/lyricists in Broadway history. A Cole Porter show borders on being almost bulletproof in the hands of a skilled director with a vision, and a talented cast committed to seeing that the vision is fulfilled.
The Pasadena Playhouse launched its 2014/2015 season with an inspired production of “Kiss Me, Kate”, brilliantly directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, and a cast of seventeen wonderful singers, dancers and actors. More about the production in a moment
Prior to the curtain going up the Playhouse audience was treated to a gala-like atmosphere where a special honor was awarded to Miss Diahann Carroll for her years of support and commitment to the Wells Fargo Theatrical Diversity Project. She was a true trailblazing actor and performer. She was the first African- American actor to have her own TV series, “Julia”. The beautiful, ageless and stunning looking 79 year-old actress, singer, and performer didn’t disappoint when she graciously accepted the award and made a few remarks to the audience.
Another additional treat for the opening night attendees was the introduction of the “original Kate” of “Kiss Me, Kate” (1948), the lovely 99 and half years-young, star of Broadway and Hollywood, Miss Patricia Morison. And seated next to her was the elegant and vibrant “Kate” of the USA touring company (1949), Ms. Anne Jeffreys. Both legends received a thunderous ovation. Also spotted congratulating the two actors were Jane Kaczmarek, French Stewart and Sharon Lawrence representing the “younger generation” of actors.
The 2014 Pasadena Playhouse production of “Kiss Me, Kate” is a loving homage to the trailblazing African-American touring troupes of the early 20th century, who brought the work of Shakespeare not just to New York City, but to theatres all over the country. Famous actors such as Paul Robeson, Ira Aldridge, Jane White and Hattie McDaniel brought “literal color” to the great classical roles, opening up doors for others who would follow.
In Sheldon Epps’ 2014 version, the musical begins to the strains of a sultry, haunting Saxophone solo wafting over the audience as the ensemble company led by Hattie (Jenelle Lynn Randall) of dancers, singers and actors slowly begin to appear on stage in the prelude number “Another Op’nin, Another Show”, which quickly turns into fast-paced energetic dance number that sets up the audience for the high-octane numbers that follow.
For anyone not familiar with the story just think of combining Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” with Cole Porter’s music and lyrics and you have “Kiss Me, Kate” If your still not on board, it’s the story of actors Fred and Lilli (Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge respectively), who were once a married couple but are now divorced and starring in a musical version of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” in Baltimore.
All of the principal supporting actors in the production portray two characters both onstage and backstage as is traditional in a show that is performed as a play within a play. Dandridge is not only beautiful, she has the voice to match.. Her poignant solo “So in Love” is a real heart-breaker. Brady is a handsome, solid leading man, with a smooth baritone and the cockiness worthy of Petruchio’s through the ages. Their “Wunderbar” duet number is cleverly staged, affording the two stars to banter and needle each other while performing on stage where they must stay in character. It’s a delightful scene.
Assisting Brady and Dandridge are principal cast members Lois/Bianca (Joanna A. Jones) in a series of scene stealing numbers: “Why Can’t You Behave?” with Bill/Lucentio (Terrance Spencer), “Tom, Dick, or Harry” with Jay Donnell as Hortensio, Eric B. Anthony as Gemmio and Spencer again and “Always True to You in My Fashion”, the latter being a sensational show-stopping 11 O’Clock Spot number performed with sass and impeccable timing by Jones.
The stage fairly drips with sexuality in the sexy “Too Darn Hot” number performed by Paul (Rogelio Douglas Jr.) and the ensemble led by Hattie (Jenelle Lynn Randall). Other Porter classics include “From This Moment On” performed by General Howell (Pat Towne) and Lilli. There are always the comedy relief performers in musicals, and this terrific production is no exception. Playing the two wise-guy/bag men enforcers are David Kirk Grant (the tall one) and Brad Blaisdell (the short one). Their “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” number, is cleverly and hilariously staged, and is always an anticipated crowd pleaser. This production has so many creative and inventive directorial touches by director Epps one may lose track of the count., but never the enjoyment.
It was a wise decision to have a live orchestra for this splendid production. There is really no alternative when performing Cole Porter music other than a live orchestra in the pit to accompany the singers. It shows class and respect for the audience and is money well spent. Music Director Rahn Coleman and choreography by Jeffrey Polk are audience-pleasingly first rate.
The technical credits are always strong at the Playhouse. Scenic Designer John Iacovelli’s dressing rooms set on movable wagons makes the set changes a piece of cake. The handsome costumes for the men, and the sexy-looking costumes for the ladies designed by David K. Mickelsen make for a visual feast. Lighting by Jared A. Sayeg and sound by Jon Gottlieb also complement this dazzling production. It’s an impressive and auspicious production to begin the 2014/2015 Playhouse Season, and one that should not be missed.
“Kiss Me, Kate” runs through October 12, 2014.