at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre through Aug. 19
In *The Taming of the Shrew,* Katherine needs to learn that she doesn’t have to spend her life fending off men by acting like a shrew. She can get the pretty, shiny toys in life — nice hats and gowns, fine food — if she learns a little cooperation and sympathy. Similarly, Petruchio needs to learn that women like Kate are more than mere chattel and that marriage isn’t simply a financial transaction.
Director Nike Imoru’s production of Cole Porter’s *Kiss Me, Kate* at Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre (through Aug. 19) succeeds more with the showier aspects (big production numbers, sets and costumes, the soaring love duets) than with substantive matters (character relationships and dramatic confrontations). Like Kate herself, however, this show has lots of spirit, plenty of potential, and a great deal to admire.
A list of highlights isn’t difficult to assemble. For the opening scene in each act, Imoru masterfully guides a high-energy ensemble through the gradually intensifying dance designs of choreographer Michael Wasileski. Right from the top, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” promises a high-energy display. Starting quietly, with just a janitor sweeping up in an empty, ghost-lit theater, “Another Op’nin’” builds and pauses, slows and intensifies until a remarkable, kinetic scene has been created: stagehands roll flats into view, the principal actors are all introduced, the play within a play’s final bows are practiced, and the tension between director and star spills over into the orchestra pit, with chorus members peeking up curiously from behind the curtain. Lilli and Fred — once married, now divorced and bickering as the inset play’s co-stars — form a recognizable parallel to Shakespeare’s Kate-vs.-Petruchio slugfest.
In the second act-opening spectacular that Imoru and Wasileski have fashioned, right after intermission, Dane Stokinger leads the ensemble in “Too Darn Hot.” With the men stripped down to wife-beater shirts and the women fanning themselves in a heat wave, everyone decides that even if they’re sweltering, it’s nothing that some sustained frenetic dancing won’t fix. As Stokinger prowls up ladders and sings about how he’s “gonna break every rule with my baby tonight,” we’re treated to a high-energy, well-choreographed display that builds and subsides and builds again: swaying hipsters, a strip tease, swing-dance couples, scissor kicks, hand stands and a crescendo that plasters everyone to the floor, flat on their backs, chests heaving, sweat flowing.
Too darn hot indeed, though it’s too darn bad that the rest of Act Two doesn’t have the same intensity. In an over-long, three-hour show, there’s too much downtime in too many scenes, too many plot threads left dangling. The secondary couple, for example, does their best to sing and dance in scenes that don’t connect much with the plot. As Bianca (Kate’s younger, more marriageable sister) and Lois Lane (no, really) in the play within a play, Darcy Wright sings her half of “Why Can’t You Behave?” as a lament, then later switches gears to belt “Always True to You in My Fashion” as her own kind of free-wheeling, self-assertive anthem. (She was wheeled off, riding a clothes rack, to big applause.) As Bianca’s fiancé, Lucentio (and as indebted gambler Bill Calhoun in the frame story), Brad Willcuts shines in his athletic dance-tribute, “Bianca,” by doing back flips and handstands before twirling around a railing and sliding right toward Lois’ feet.
The book of this musical just goes through the motions in slenderly connecting Bill’s gambling problem to the inset musical, though it does prompt the appearance of a couple of enforcers looking to collect some dough. Bill Rhodes, the better of these two gangsters, is a big goombah who, despite himself, picks up a little culture when realizing the need to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
In the dual role of Lilli Vanessi and Kate the shrew, Jennifer Dudley can be both fiery and resentful, romantic and vulnerable. From her first entrance as the haughty movie star in sunglasses and broad-brimmed hat, she’s clearly a broad to be reckoned with. One of the show’s unexpected delights was her love duet with Chris Thompson as Fred Graham, the director and star of the inset production. In “Wunderbar,” while improbably waltzing in the cramped confines of Lilli’s dressing room, Dudley and Thompson look back in a romantic mist at their characters’ idealized past together. For a moment, Fred and Lilli started to resemble Fred and Ginger: elegant, synchronized, yearning for love.
During the love-spats, however, Dudley’s not a physically imposing shrew: The stage-slaps she aimed at Petruchio’s jaw were more like delicate little love-taps. And why is Dudley sauntering and skipping between the verses of “I Hate Men”? The contrast between angry lyrics and Little Bo Peep mannerisms seemed jarring.
Thompson presents us with a Petruchio who’s too effete to be convincing as a whip-wielding macho man. (The ascot-and-smoking-jacket look for Fred’s backstage appearances doesn’t help any.) Even with the contrasting example of Kent Kimball’s comic bit as a bossy Douglas MacArthur-style love interest for Lilli, Thompson needs to be a more demanding stage director as Fred Graham and a more forceful lover as Petruchio. But, oh, that voice: When Thompson sings the reprise of “So in Love” — alone, with Lilli evidently lost to another man and love just a memory — Thompson projects his rich baritone (it’s like buttah, folks) far into the house.
In general — and because Dudley and Thompson sing so powerfully — the musical numbers in CdA’s *Kate* are more convincing than the Shakespearean scenes, which seemed hammy by comparison. Set designer Michael McGiveney has made the *Shrew* sequences look great, though, by creating a little Italian Renaissance village with archways and rooflines stretching dreamily off into the distance. Pale yellows and sea foam green dominate the gowns and doublets that his wife Judith has fashioned for the Act One wedding scene, when the 15-piece orchestra led by Max Mendez contributes what sounds like mandolins and bass. The fashions and the music evoke an Italian-piazza-in-the-afternoon-heat feeling for a formal Renaissance dance.
There are many parts of CdA’s *Kiss Me, Kate,* then, to admire. Almost like Kate before she matures, however, this production seems dazzled by the glitz of its biggest numbers. It hasn’t yet nailed down the give-and-take lesson-learning of the Lilli/Fred and Kate/Petruchio relationships. N