How exciting it must have been to see Kiss Me, Kate, the theater-smitten musical that's currently on view at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, when it debuted in 1948. Today much of the Shakespeare canon has been musicalized and even cannibalized. But 59 years ago this farcical account of flaring egos during an out-of-town tryout of The Taming of the Shrew, with songs by Cole Porter, broke new ground.
There's a sense that much of the Rep production team recognizes this: They are bending over backward, not merely to revive a once-original musical, but to give it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Kate has been splendidly choreographed, costumed, designed, lit and orchestrated to within an inch of her ever-aging life. So let's salute the evening's real stars.
Dorothy Marshall Englis' costumes are witty and grandiose. Squirrels could hide a winter's worth of acorns in the men's codpieces. And who wouldn't want to hibernate all winter long in the inviting accordion-pleated sleeves of the leading lady's dressing gown? John Ezell's whimsical, cherub-adorned, revolving sets are a delight. Posters from early Cole Porter musicals bedeck Ezell's theater alley. There's even a photo of Porter himself, as if he's there to keep a watchful eye. The Bard is also on hand — though in his first appearance at the top of Act Two, Will is not so much watching as ogling. His painted eyes veritably pop from their sockets as, rather like a peeping Tom, he gazes down upon the fleshy dancers who undulate their way through the Porter standard "Too Darn Hot." Choreographer Ralph Perkins pushes the syncopation to a near frenzy. Throughout the evening Perkins finds festive ways to transform movement into a celebration of the body and of theater itself. Musical director Dale Rieling contributes snappy orchestrations. There are only nine musicians in the pit, but their sound is rich and at times playfully snazzy.
The whole package has been so resplendently illuminated by Peter Sargent, don't be surprised if, on your way home, you're smitten with an inexplicable desire to dive into a half-gallon tub of rainbow sherbet. It's not just that the lighting bathes the stage in embracing hues: Laugh lines are funnier, voices ring truer, already colorful costumes become coruscating, all thanks to Sargent's work.
It's critical that so much love and care has been accorded this piece, because Kiss Me, Kate is a curious hybrid. Act One, which centers on the hilarious backstage jealousies between Shrew's once-married stars (husband-and-wife actors Brian and Diane Sutherland), follows a tight through-line; everything that happens advances the plot. But Act Two is a throwback to the revue-oriented 1930s. The story in which we are invested is put on hold. Now the subplot actors (Jessica Leigh Brown, David Larsen) eat up the clock. Numbers like "Always True to You in My Fashion" (which hardly warrants its encore) and the vapid "Bianca" impede any sense of forward movement. Even the celebrated "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (charmingly performed by Steve Isom and Joneal Joplin, though it's the one song that would benefit from a thinner orchestration) comes from nowhere. It's as if our solid book musical has been supplanted by an oleo show.
All four principal actors are sufficient, but there's no work here so strong as to justify the abrupt change in style. Nor does Act Two's added character, a spoof of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, help one jot. Director Victoria Bussert is unable to jump-start Act Two after it has been stopped cold by the sizzling ensemble work in "Too Darn Hot." By the time this stylistically inconsistent evening staggers to its conclusion, Kate has worn out her welcome. At the same time, such a dazzling display of sheer craft glows as a veritable triumph of technical know-how.