I am not a fan of musical productions nor do I claim to be a critic, because honestly, I cannot sing, dance or play an instrument without giving offense. But I have got to admit that I was particularly taken with the UC Irvine production of ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ performed at the Claire Trevor Theatre between March 10 and 18, because it is the show for people who do not like musicals. People who are just like me.
‘Kiss Me, Kate’ was originally produced in 1948 and has been considered one of Broadway’s greatest treasures. Written by Sam and Bella Spewack, a real-life couple with some relationship troubles of their own, the play concentrates on the relationship of Lilli Vanessi (Caitlin McGinty) and Fred Graham (Jason Vande Brake), a recently divorced couple who must reunite in order to play opposites in a musical version of Shakepeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’
Onstage, Venessi and Graham clashed intensely as Shakespeare’s Katherine and Petruchio, while continuing their passionate and highly entertaining quarreling backstage. The two main characters, played wonderfully by McGinty and Brake, created such magic onstage that the audience could not help but cheer their reunion.
These two characters squabbled with energy, sang gracefully, handled the comedy quite nicely and generated just the right amount of chemistry to be convincing.
On the stage, whether they were separated or together, McGinty and Brake commanded attention and conveyed the charisma needed to create these larger than life roles.
Their interaction in the musical number ‘Wunderbar’ was refreshingly lighthearted and sweet. This duet made evident that Vanessi and Graham have an obvious suppressed passion beneath their exaggerated animosity. Wunderbar is a light hop, skip and a jump down memory lane for the main characters, enabling a spark to briefly reignite their feelings for one another.
‘Kiss Me, Kate’ was simply amazing—tight, funny, fast, colorful, full of the dry wit and wisdom that is Cole Porter, and was gloriously ‘musical.’ The production was especially appealing to music and dance fans, but contained other elements that pleased a wider audience as well. For comedy fans, the offstage antics that mirror the onstage situations and plot are of a fiendishly clever conceit.
However, the best part of the play is the tribute to Shakespeare given by two humorous thugs. The gangsters, played by Omar Ricks and Adrian Alita, get caught up in the limelight and pay an unusual and amusing tribute to Shakespeare in the musical number ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare.’
To the crew’s credit, the lines are straight from the original production and the cast fits naturally and gracefully into the performance.
Robert Cohen’s brilliant reading of ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ the play within a play, drew gleeful applause from the audience. Cohen suggests that for ‘all its comic shenanigans and musical glories, ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ has solid human underpinnings.’ For Cohen, ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ is ‘a relief from a world where entertainment is often considerably more fitful and compromised.’
Cohen’s directorial expertise and the fact that he has chosen to stay true to Cole Porter’s original rendition make it simple for people like me who become very awkward when watching any musical production, to enjoy the show.