The performances have been getting better and better over September Song's 18 years. And this year's is the best.

Cole Porter's wonderful "Kiss Me, Kate" opened Friday night at Westminster Senior High School to a large, enthusiastic audience.

While it is somewhat surprising that we had to wait 18 years for vintage Porter, it was worth the wait.

Producer Arnie Hayes and new director, Stan Ziolkowski, along with veteran musical director MaryLee Schmall, have dealt with the many challenges offered by the marvelous score and time-tested story by Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack, writers of the book.

Franco Zefferelli's popular film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton has familiarized most with the story based on Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." With "Kiss Me, Kate"Porter and the Spewacks use the popular Elizabethan dramatic device of an induction

scene as their inspiration and expand and embellish it.

In the original, the story of Kate and Petruccio and the subplot about Kate's sister Bianca and her suitors is simply a drunkard's dream.

This 20th-century adaptation presents a love-hate relationship within a love-hate relationship as the "play within the play." The war between the headstrong and brash Kate and her equally energetic and committed suitor are presented in the musical by two actors involved in their own war between the sexes as they prepare and perform"The Taming of the Shrew."

September Song's technical production is very effective, with the sound system almost flawless and the lighting adequate, though falling short in its contribution to mood.

Stuart Dawkins has done a remarkable job designing scenery that is both attractive and sufficiently adaptable to allow scene changes. The two-dimensional scenic pieces appear air-brushed -- with soft edges and muted hues that create a background against which the bright, colorful costumes stand out.

While the writers have borrowed from the Elizabethans, Dawkins' influence was Greek. His wagons and "periaktoi," or revolving prism-shaped columns, allow the fluidity and pace so necessary in musicals. Bravo!

Most of Joyce Fritz's costumes work well. The exception is the bland and unimaginative costume for Petruccio's explosion onto the stage to claim his bride. The costume is carefully described in the text as outlandish and insulting. It is neither.

Director Ziolkowski is to be congratulated for his excellent shaping and pacing of the production. One of his major accomplishments is the toning down of the chorus's reactions to the major action, which in the past have been mostly mugging.

The major flaw in his work is the rather lackluster and flaccid finale, which fails to tie thebow on an otherwise beautiful gift.

Ann Barcroft, in the title role, sings beautifully. What is especially noteworthy is her continuing growth and maturity as an actor. With each performance her work hasbecome more secure, more believable and more affecting.

Her suitor is played by Myron Dutterer. On opening night, his voice and vigor vacillated between very effective and less so.

Good supporting work by Nancy Edwards, as the much-sought-after sister, and Mark Provance, the eventual winner of her hand, added greatly to the production.

One of the funniest and most charming things I have seen on stage in ages was the team of Arnie Hayes and George Fringer as the gangsters who disrupt and eventually control the play within the play. And what a joy it is to see Fringer emerge from his historical place in the chorus to provide us with such an engaging and evocative characterization.

These characters are typically played as "tough guys" who really menace and then become humorous when they shift to a musical mode in the inspired and witty song and dance, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

Here, they look and sound more like escapees from a Disney cartoon fairy tale. And the high point of the evening, their song, works because they maintain their characters so well as they glide through the marvelous minimalist movement of their "dance."

This is a strong, engaging and satisfying production, which entertains its audiences while raising money for worthy county agencies.

Be sure to beon hand at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday when the wonderful musical and fine company come together again.

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