“Kiss Me Kate” marries together Cole Porter with a modern day “Taming of the Shrew” story as the two principals are in a production of the very same play. During its day, “Taming of the Shrew,” didn’t suffer from the problematic issues of domestic violence. Considering England was recovering from the reign of a king who redefined domestic violence by divorcing both wife and religion and beheading a spouse, a few slaps and starvation might have seemed relatively tame.
The five-time Emmy Award winner Wayne Brady is the name to lure people into this lively production under the able direction of Sheldon Epps, but Merle Dandridge’s voice is the real thrill here. The conceit of having an all-black theatrical group isn’t so far-fetched. According to Epps’ research during those intense years of entertainment segregation all-black theatrical companies in the 1930s and 1940s dd do their own adaptation of Shakespeare. They came up with titles of “Voodoo Macbeth” and “Swingin’ the Dream.”
Historically, Broadway and musicals owe a lot to all-black theatrical companies who were instrumental in the formulation of musicals and bringing them to Broadway. American music can’t deny the debt to African Americans either.
In this case, the theatrical company in this play is producing “Swingin’ the Shrew,” and the divorced stars, Fred Graham (Brady) and Lilli Vanessi (Dandridge) are the leads. He has a young fling he’s working on who plays the ingenue, Lois (Joanna A. Jones) who is Bianca to Lilli’s Kate. When a gift he meant for Lois ends up in given to Lilli, trouble ensues on stage and off. As in Shakespeare, Lilli gets to growl and rage against men, but her best match, Fred, gets to tame her with a spanking that prevents her from comfortably sitting down. Funny in Shakespeare’s time when that was not as bad as being beheaded, but in today’s world, doesn’t slip so easily from our minds, particularly after that recent clamor about a football player slapping his fiancée in an elevator. Yet this is the same problem with the original play.
For those who have seen the movie, remember the movie was made in 1953 by MGM. Hermes Pan choreographed and the movie starred Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel as Lilli/Kate and Fred/Petruchio respectively. Ann Miller was Lois/Bianca. Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore were the two thugs, Lippy and Slug. Cole Porter’s lyrics were sanitized to make this musical acceptable to the censors and that includes the number “Too Darn Hot.” Miller’s version has sex appeal, but at the Pasadena Playhouse, the sexual tension is fully expressed.
At the Pasadena Playhouse, we not only aren’t at the movies, we also are post-sexual revolution 1960s so the risque lyrics are back and the costumes are flirty and dirty. Still “Kiss Me Kate” is a comedy and not meant to be an exploration of sexual themes and social politics. “Too Darned Hot” implies there are a lot of physical interactions between the chorus members off-stage, but the most suggestive song is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” which here becomes one of the best vaudeville routines between the supposed gangsters played with the required daftness by David Kirk Grand and Brad Blaisdell. We don’t believe that these two guys are really blood-thirsty, cold-blooded killers. The contrast between their thick accents and their knowledge of Shakespeare creates a comic incongruity. Yet this is still a family show and everything is tastefully done.
This is the last weekend of “Kiss Me Kate” at the Pasadena Playhouse. While the African American casting is lively and well-done (except we’re strained to believe a white general would consider marrying a black actress–no matter how beloved and famous–in that era), this is also “Kiss Me Kate” as it was meant to be done, unlike the movie. If you can overlook the aspects of domestic violence in both the Shakespeare’s “Shrew” and this musical itself, then it’s well worth seeing.