Clarence Brown Produces an Energetic 'Kiss Me, Kate'

It's almost silly to review these things. If you like musicals, you'll like Clarence Brown Theatre's production of Kiss Me, Kate. You won't lose money betting they get a standing ovation every night. There's a lot of energy in the performance, and it comes off without ever seeming cute.

It's Cole Porter, so more than half the fun is in the songs that, over the last 64 years, have snuck into our civilization's side door to become classics on their own.

"So in Love" is a jazz standard you know, even if you don't recognize that title. "Too Darn Hot," "Always True to You in My Fashion," "I Hate Men" ("He may have hair upon his chest, but sister, so has Lassie")—all emerged from this one show. As did "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," which I bet some folks assume came from Monty Python. "Just declaim a few lines from Othella/And they'll think you're a hell of a fella.... If she says your behavior is heinous/Kick her right in the Coriolanus." As the singing gangsters, David Brian Alley and Stuart Matthews fill their pin-striped suits perfectly, and provide the show's funniest moments.

For longtime Clarence Brown-goers, part of the fun's seeing people you didn't know could sing, sing and people you didn't know could dance, dance. But this production, directed by CBT chief Cal MacLean, is a professional-quality production—naturally, since most of those who lead it are professionals. Neil Friedman and Katy Wolfe Zahn, both commanding performers and strong singers, play the leads, with seasoned student stars Conrad Ricmora and Magan Wiles (this may be their last shows at CBT, as students, at least), as well as Terry Weber, Donald Thorne, and several other familiar and unfamiliar faces in the big cast.

It's mainly about the songs—the pit band's directed by Terry Silver-Alford—but there's also a plot, and a subplot. These folks happen to be putting on a fairly wacky musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The two plots intersect, onstage versus backstage, in some unlikely but fairly hilarious ways.

We're used to big razzle-dazzle musicals set in New York or Los Angeles, but Kiss Me, Kate, being set in Baltimore's Ford's Theater—a real place, though it no longer exists—offers a couple of surprising Southeastern regional references, one to prison in Atlanta, another to Abingdon's Barter Theatre.

Any Clarence Brown mainstage show is a Popular Mechanics fantasy. Sometimes this stage itself becomes an energetic and versatile actor; it does things you didn't know a stage could do. This time, the stage and sets appeared to be almost as big as my house, but built better. At scene changes, the stage rotated, with some impressive, if not completely necessary, geometric flourishes on the floor. It was almost as if Busby Berkeley were directing plywood.

When I wasn't laughing, I was pondering. The setting is 1948, when Cole Porter's original production debuted, and there are a few anachronisms that might tip off those of us of a certain age that this is a well-known (fairly light) rewrite from the 1990s. One character is modeled on Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who in 1948 was a famous but not yet ridiculous character. There's an allusion to a "good Republican cloth coat," a riff off Nixon's 1952 "Checkers" speech. There's a very funny play off the slogan, "Guns don't kill people…" which I don't think had any currency until several years later.

But I was more impressed at the number of allusions to 1948 pop culture that still work. In an age-diverse crowd, a reference to Noël Coward's personal life got a belly laugh; a mention of Louella Parsons got a knowing titter. Has there ever been a time when you could make an allusion to a pop-culture figures 64 years later, and expect people, even young people, to get it? It's kind of hard to picture an audience in 1980, say, responding so knowingly to pop-culture references from 1916. Are the 1940s permanently ensconced in the American psyche?

There's hardly anything to complain about. I've complained before about the use of microphones—in a 500-seat theater, they hardly seem necessary, and old head mikes always suggested mission control—but this time it all worked fine. The finale wasn't very grand—especially after so many show-stoppers, it seemed almost anticlimactic.

This is one show that might have been fun to see in a bigger theater. The almost athletic activity onstage sometimes strains against the boundaries of the proscenium. But at the same time, I would like to have heard some of these songs in a small venue, with just a piano, where I could hear every word.

Here's my proposal, next time CBT puts on a musical of this quality: Suggest the lead singers do their practicing in local bars, like the Bistro, say, or the Crown and Goose, a night of Cole Porter songs. I'd be there.