Our University loves nothing more than celebrating itself. If nothing else, this weekend’s performance of “Kiss Me, Kate” in concert will be a wonderfully gleeful experience of just that. The read-through I attended lacked the show’s 44-piece orchestra, which will be one of the production’s highlights. But as the show heads into the weekend, it is clear that, at his alma mater, Cole Porter’s 1913 vision will shine through.
“Kiss Me, Kate” is planned as part of the Cole Porter Centennial, a yearlong recognition of the famous songwriter that is designed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Porter’s graduation from Yale College. This may seem like a contrived date to focus on, but it’s hard to play down Porter’s Yale connection. While studying English at the University, Porter not only participated in the Yale Dramat: He was also a founding member of the Whiffenpoofs. Whenever you hear the “Bulldog” fight song performed at a football game or wheezed out by old alumni during a drunken night at Mory’s, Porter is the one to thank.
Luckily, the songster is just as well-known for his postcollege melodies, and “Kiss Me, Kate” includes some of his best. In addition, the 1948 Broadway musical has the distinction of winning the first ever Tony Award for Best Musical. And while most of the show’s songs remain memorable, its plot is no less virtuosic. Set within a theater company attempting to put on a musical production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Kate” features competing egos, old-fashioned gangsters, complicated love triangles and, of course, a play within a play.
This weekend’s performance, however, shifts its focus to the music alone. “Kate”’s premiere will introduce, for the first time, a critical edition of Porter’s score, compiled from competing editions by conductor David Charles Abell ’81. Unfortunately for me, without the presence of a full orchestra, much of the intended effect of Abell’s research was lost when the performers rehearsed to the sound of the piano alone.
Even without the additional bells and whistles, Porter’s music stands well enough on its own. This is partially due to the show’s decision to imitate a staged reading, as in a radio play: the actors stand in a row before a set of microphones beneath glaring “On Air” signs, the stage directions are read by narrator Geoffrey Owens ’81, and the sound effects (slamming doors, ringing phones and even falling pots) are created in front of another set of microphones by Foley artists (Raphael Shapiro ’13 and Bonnie Antosh ’13).
All this lack of motion serves to heighten the focus on the actor’s performances. The show’s leads, Ethan Freeman ’81 as Frank Graham/Petruchio and Sari Gruber ’93, an opera soprano, as Lilli Vanessi/Kate, hold your attention with Porter’s more classical tunes. Gruber, especially, carries Porter’s ballad “I Hate Men” with a neat, trilling flourish.
But, while the radio broadcast conceit succeeds in holding your attention during Porter’s ballads, the performance sags during breaks for dialogue. The musical’s slapstick sensibility which, in a pivotal scene, involves some actual slapping, doesn’t make as much sense when the actors stand feet away from each other and never touch. Additionally, Porter’s score includes ample space for dance interludes — in this version, the music plays, but no dancers take the stage. Your ability to hold focus will depend on your tolerance for toe-tapping tunes.
The occasional lag notwithstanding, “Kiss Me, Kate” comes across with a classic, old-Yale, old-fashioned wink. The big numbers, “Too Darn Hot” and “Another Op’nin’ Another Show,” bring in a hearty dose of enthusiasm and even the most ardent philistine will appreciate two gangsters (Christopher Durang DRA ’74 and Bobby Lopez ’97) putting their bafflement with the bard to song in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
In these best moments, carried away by Porter’s rhyming, ludicrous talent, I couldn’t help but forget everything but the melodies. And, in the end, I guess that was the point.
“Kiss Me, Kate” will run at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Jan. 19 at the University Theater. The next event in the centennial celebration will be a Cole Porter-themed swing dance in Jonathan Edwards College.