With a musical comedy based on Shakespeare gone south, lyrics and score by Cole Porter, topical humor of the postwar (WW II) era popping up amid the iambs and a couple of gangsters thrown in when the male ingenue goes bust at craps: how could Kiss Me Kate miss?
And how can a good community theater keep it all in focus? With a cast of 18, a jazz quartet on a backstage set facing the audience, an off-the-cuff attack that runs from urbane romantic to slapstick burlesque, and production numbers of hit songs that stretch a genial ensemble every which way.
Contra Costa Civic Theater’s got it figured out pretty good, in a production with stage direction by Mary Ann Rodgers, musical direction by Richard Riccardi and choreography by Emily Garcia. The company is composed of several strata of talent and experience, which seem to accent the wild array of theatrics Kiss Me Kate brings off with a nonchalant, semi-screwball brilliance, never stepping on its own toes no matter how much it tap dances around something approaching deliberate self-parody.
Opening night (of both the musical and the musical-within-the musical) brought up the curtain on the increasingly interchangeable back- and on-stage life of a gaggle of Baltimore show people and those who attach themselves to them, while performing a musical newly cut out of old cloth: “We owe it to Shakespeare—and the three guys up all night rewriting it!”
There’s a war of nerves between Fred Graham, an old actor-manager type, both directing and playing Petruchio (Ted von Pohle), as well as wooing his ingenue and his diva-esque ex-, Lilli Vanessi (Maggie Gish), who is on board to play Kate the Shrew. Stage and backstage resound periodically with her battlecry—to whit: “Isn’t there a smile in your contract, Miss Vanessi?”
“Give a Broadway hoofer a chance to play Shakespeare ...” Bill Calhoun, the hoofer in question (played suavely by Robbie Cowan, who really can sing and dance) is in love with his female counterpart, Lois Lane (a perky and recent UC grad, Alicia Bruckman), an “ingenue” who’s been around. They’re playing Lucentio and Bianca—and Bill’s signed a gambling debt with Fred’s name.
When “The Boys” in fedoras come backstage to “remind” Fred (in leopardskin dressing gown, Anida Weyl’s excellent costume) of his debt, he gleefully confesses another’s sin, seeing in it a way to keep Lilli in the show through someone else’s strong-arm tactics.
The way is paved for the stage debut of these wiseguys, more like a slangy but erudite vaudeville team. They are beautifully fleshed out by Malcolm Rodgers (who also designed the set) and Eugene DeChristopher, a perfect example of that CCCT “strata” thing. Rodgers is an old trouper hereabouts, an excellent utility man. Their goons’ soft shoe of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” when stuck out in front of the curtain and literally on (and in) the spot, is a bona fide showstopper.
Ted von Pohle’s Fred is a likable egotist, and von Pohle plays him particularly well when at cross-purposes in the maelstrom of trying to cut a figure performing the Bard while everything else is coming unglued.
Maggie Gish is the sole Equity actor in the show, and is every bit the pro, a versatile performer, radiant with feeling and humor, fine when selling a song or walloping her ex- with a barrelhouse. Her “mystery man,” always calling from the White House, finally shows up in full dress, ribbons and all-Gen. Harrison Howell (sly Ron Dritz), top brass with presidential ambitions, ready to rescue his lady love.
He tells his mink-loving intended to set her eyes on a good Republican cloth coat! They sing and act out “From This Moment On,” with the General jiving to upstage the diva, another great up-tempo, though offbeat, moment.
There are any number of great tunes, from Lilli’s signature “I Hate Men,” to the sweltering backstage-in-Baltimore production number, “Too Damn Hot,” performed by the chorus of young women (Jordin Bradley, Erica Gardner, Paulette Herring, Aurelia Jordan and Thea Rodgers) raving it up alongside Hortensio (Luke Kiehn-Thilman) and Lucentio in a tune that’s become identified with Ella Fitzgerald. “Tom, Dick and Harry,” “Always True to You in My Fashion” and a lot of great Cole Porter hits surface in this Chinese box-puzzle of a musical.
Mary Ann Rodgers has a special touch with an ensemble, and this is an ensemble show. Just covering these stronger points in the CCCT production, they serve as markers for what’s surely to follow as the run unfolds this summer in El Cerrito, not, blessedly, in sweaty Baltimore.