When a musical hands you such low-hanging fruit as opening number “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” there’s no use casting about for a better way to begin your review: The Skylight Theatre’s production of Kiss Me, Kate (which opened Friday, May 17, and runs through Sunday, June 16) is much more than just “another op’nin’.” The show, which won the very first Tony Award for Best Musical, is a dazzling spectacle of song and dance, a play-within-a-play with all the attendant crossover dramas and fourth-wall-breaking in-jokes.
And Kate offers a little something for everyone. If you like Shakespeare, mid-century fashion, Golden Era MGM-style tap dance or even comedic set pieces involving sausage links, you’ll find something to enjoy at the Skylight Theatre’s production of the 1948 show.
There are jazz numbers and vaudeville gags, Hamlet puns and jabs at presidential hopeful Thomas E. Dewey; there are colorful Renaissance-esque man-peplums, but also several nods to Dior’s New Look; there’s a growling, gleeful rendition of “I Hate Men,” delivered spunkily by the preternaturally talented Rána Roman; but there’s also a man spanking his ex-wife and later joking about her inability to sit down.
Yes, like Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the play within the aforementioned play, Kiss Me, Kate presents some, shall we say, challenges to both stage directors and cultural critics.
The story follows divorced couple Lilli Vanessi (Rána Roman) and Fred Graham (Andrew Varela), themselves playing Katharine and Petruchio, respectively, in a Ford Theater rendition of The Taming of the Shrew. Based on squabbling theater power-couple Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt (Wisconsin natives whose former Ten Chimneys home is now a museum), Lilli and Fred take their backstage bickering to their onstage Shrew performances, which conveniently call for a similar level of animosity, a tone they manage to achieve through “realistic acting.” Which is to say, when Fred-as-Petruchio drags a kicking-and-screaming Lilli/Katharine offstage amid mutual spanking, the violence, we are to believe, is real.
Why the acrimony? We don’t get much backstory about the divorce (and even less of an understanding of what makes The Shrew such a shrew), but suffice it to say that Fred is a cad who will lie to a woman’s face to save his own derriere while – and I can’t emphasize this enough – literally pummeling hers.
Much ink has already been spilled dissecting the gender politics of both Shrew and Kate (and even wife spankings in general). You might leave the show wishing the script had been updated to offend less our modern sensibilities, only to discover that it already had been. The Skylight production clearly approached these challenges with self-awareness and care, namely in its empowering depiction of Lilli, who holds her own and fights back as both herself and as Katharine, and in the gender-swapped casting of “Gangster 2” (though not, notably, “Gangster 1”).
But Kate’s problematic gender dynamics are baked into its DNA – second act toe-tapper “Bianca” rhymes the name with “spank-a,” for example, and the 1953 film adaptation even advertises its notorious spanking scene on its cover. And if you know how Shrew ends (or any number of other stories that espouse the belief that “happiness is predicated on a woman being broken like a horse”), you know nothing short of a major rewrite could fully satisfy our 2019 expectations for gender parity. Still, it’s hard not to compare Kate to the 1999 Shrew retelling, 10 Things I Hate About You, which featured a “tamer” who melts the shrew’s cold exterior by developing an appreciation for her interests (“Thai food, feminist prose and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion”) and giving her space to be emotionally vulnerable on her own terms, casting doubt upon the very notion of the shrew as stock character.
Skylight’s artistic director Ray Jivoff, who will retire from his role after directing Kate, acknowledged the musical’s fraught gender dynamics in an interview with the Journal Sentinel: “Honestly, I don’t know if people will still be doing this show in 20 years,” he told them. Despite his level of care with the subject matter, Jivoff’s equivocation feels oddly anti-progressive, like he’s serving up a bottomless sheet cake for both having and eating.
Still, if audiences can get past the antiquated thematic message and enjoy the musical for what it is, they’ll find a production overflowing with talent. Much of the show feels like an excuse to showcase the cast’s song and dance chops, an excuse audiences will readily accept. Every high note rings clearer than the glass it could easily shatter, every dance step executed with as much aplomb as apparent ease. Comedic timing and ball changes alike land with the same rollicking rhythm (especially a particularly acrobatic number by Joe Capstick as Bill Calhoun in “Bianca” that marries tap dancing with something like Parkour). Choreographer Amy Brinkman’s brilliance shines in “Tom, Dick or Harry’s” multi-genre dance vignettes. Kelly Doherty steals every scene as Gangster 2, and Kaylee Annable’s Lois/Bianca is a revelation as the coquettish parvenu with a voice of gold. And the chemistry between Varela and Roman (or Varela and Annable, or Varela and anyone) sizzles with veritable exothermia.
The overall effect is one of delightful historical and narrative palimpsest, with mid-century cultural mores interpreting Shakespearean text in interesting, complicated ways. Renaissance-era puffy-sleeved frocks get a 1940s update with split-front skirts for flashing a little thigh (hat tip to costume designer Jason Orlenko), and real scene changes are cleverly masked as fictional ones, filled with winking dance interludes by Kate chorus members playing Shrew chorus members. The first moment when the backstage drama interferes with the onstage drama (it involves a card pulled from Lilli’s cleavage) is a bit of dramatic irony you can’t help but rub you palms at in anticipation.
Skylight’s production is a breathtaking homage to an increasingly dusty relic that can only be understood and enjoyed in its slippery historical and cultural contexts.
Go See It: Kiss Me, Kate presented by the Skylight Music Theatre, May 17-June 16