Los Angeles Theater Review: KISS ME, KATE (Cabrillo Music Theatre in Thousand Oaks)

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by Tony Frankel on October 24, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

A CLOSED-MOUTH KISS

There are so many sexual allusions and situations in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate that it is remarkable the musical came out in 1948. I surmise the reason that Porter got away with such startling and blatant innuendos was his ability to wrap them up in sophisticated, witty lyrics. The musical is oft-revived, mostly due to Porter’s score, one of the best ever written for Broadway. It includes a stirring ballad (“So in Reba Buhr and Scott Reardon in Cabrillo Music Theatre's KISS ME, KATELove”), jazz-hot numbers (“Too Darn Hot”) and pastiches of a Viennese waltz (“Wunderbar”), a tarantella (“We Sing of Love”) and a bowery song (“Brush Up Your Shakespeare”).

Porter’s songs are also wrapped up in an ingenious conceit by Samuel and Bella Spewack: Director and Broadway star Fred Graham is opening a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew starring his ex-wife Lilli. They still love each other, but their relationship is tested by his ego and her temper. Complicating their tempestuous offstage romance are two co-stars: Lois, a sexy chorine in her first big role, and Bill, Lois’s gambling boyfriend who just won’t behave. When Bill signs Fred’s name on a gambling chit, two gangsters arrive to collect just as Lilli is about to bolt the show. Even though Fred is unaware of this I.O.U., he tells the thugs in essence: “No Lilli. No Show. No Money.” The gangsters don Shakespearean garb and join the onstage show, where the relationship of Petruchio and Kate mirrors that of the stars therein, and comedy mayhem ensues in this musical-within-a-musical.

Davis Gaines and Victoria Strong in Cabrillo Music Theatre's KISS ME, KATEEverything is so dang perfect about the show’s construction that even Richard Israel’s flat-footed production for Cabrillo Music Theatre doesn’t dampen your spirits. Nor does it raise them. However handsome and packed with talent, the show is slick, one-dimensional and barely breathes. Some of the numbers are so overpopulated with the dynamite ensemble that the hard working dancers (given spirited but casebook choreography by John Todd) get lost in a blur of A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s colorful costumes, which, along with Israel’s sex-schtick, overplays Porter’s lyrics, packed as they are with phallic insinuation. The jokes don’t land when the huge codpieces are so distracting; and when the gangsters sing “When your baby is pleading for pleasure / Let her sample your Measure for Measure,” the humor is diffused with so much groin pointing. Even with all of this sex, the show lacks sexual chemistry.

Steve Greene, Davis Gaines and Tom McMahon in Cabrillo Music Theatre's KISS ME, KATEDavis Gaines can do no wrong. Ever the consummate professional with that rich and powerful baritone, Gaines brings a winning flair to the role of Fred Graham. Reba Buhr is smashingly adorable as Lois, as is Scott Reardon as her bad boy beau, Bill. As the stars’ dressers, Raquel Jeté as Hattie and Lamont Whitaker as Paul light up the stage with their affable presences. In fact, everyone sounds great (especially with that amazing orchestra led by Darryl Archibald), but Israel obviously had his hands full with this behemoth 3-hour production, and had precious little time for nuance and character development in this two-reality offering (the offstage “actors” behave almost exactly the same way as their Shrew counterparts).

Reba Buhr, Davis Gaines, Victoria Strong and Scott Reardon in Cabrillo Music Theatre's KISS ME, KATEI would send my mom to see this immediately if she didn’t live in Tucson. And those who have never seen the show before will gawk at the perfect combination of libretto and score. Cabrillo is presenting the 1999 revival version (with updated orchestrations by Don Sebesky) that innocuously adds “From This Moment On” for the role of Harrison Howell, the right-wing General interested in Lilli; the song is sung quite well by Steve Perren, but his acting is 4-F. Israel finds triumphant moments, such as Victoria Strong giving birth as Lilli in “I Hate Men” (although Strong is rather removed and going through the motions elsewhere). But as with his recent productions of Falsettos, Burnt Part Boys and The Full Monty, Israel is so busy creating stage pictures and having actors hit their mark that he doesn’t locate the beating heart of a show.

photos by Ed Krieger

Kiss Me, Kate
Cabrillo Music Theatre
Kavli Theatre
Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
scheduled to end on October 27, 2013
for tickets, call 800-745-3000 or 805-449-2787
or visit http://www.CabrilloMusicTheatre.com

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