A solid, flawless production of 'Kiss Me, Kate'

The Baltimore Sun

In the opening chorus of Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter rhymes "show" with "Baltimo'." Somebody should have told him we don't pronounce it that way.

But that is the only thing to complain about in the show, which runs through Nov. 19 at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

Kiss Me, Kate boasts Porter's finest score: "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Why Can't You Behave?," "Wunderbar," "So in Love," "We Open in Venice," "I Hate Men," "Were Thine That Special Face," "Too Darn Hot," "Where Is the Life that Late I Led?," "Always True to You in My Fashion," "From This Moment On" -- and more.

This remarkable series of numbers is paired with a clever and solidly constructed book by Sam and Bella Spewack that mixes scenes from Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew with a contemporary backstage love story.

As did Shakespeare, the Spewacks base their plot on the battle of the sexes. The time is the late 1940s. Fred Graham (Russell Sunday) is starring as Petruchio in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. The production is having a pre-Broadway tryout at Ford's Theatre in Baltimore (long gone now, but some will remember it).

Portraying Katharine, the shrew, is Fred's ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi (Janine Gulisano-Sunday). Lilli has a new man, a prominent general with political ambitions, but she continues to pick quarrels with Fred -- suggesting that her feelings for him aren't really dead.

As Katharine's younger and gentler sister, Bianca, Fred has cast a former chorus girl, Lois Lane (Debra Buonaccorsi). Fred is mildly interested in Lois, but she is in love with another actor in the production, Bill Calhoun (Jeffrey Shankle).

Bill is no good. He has just lost $10,000 to a gang boss in a dice game and has signed Fred's name to the IOU.

Two gunmen (Robert Biedermann and David James) enter the dressing room and lean on Fred, showing him the IOU. He is bewildered but understandably nervous. He says he will have money at the end of the week -- if the show succeeds.

The hoods decide to stick around to protect their boss' interests. Before long, they are caught up by the fascination of show business.

The dresser brings flowers to Lilli by mistake. Fred meant them for Lois, but to maintain the fragile peace between them he wisely keeps his mouth shut.

Now we shift to the stage, where Shakespeare's story is playing out. Bill, playing Lucentio, and two other young men -- Gremio (Lawrence B. Munsey) and Hortensio (Kevin Laughon) -- ask Baptista (Samn Huffer) for the hand of his daughter Bianca. The old man says no one will marry Bianca until he has found a husband for his elder daughter, the aggressive Katharine.

Petruchio comes to town looking for a rich wife. Hearing about Katharine, he agrees to marry her and strikes a lucrative deal with Baptista. He attempts to woo Katharine. She resists violently, but Petruchio prevails.

Offstage, Lilli learns Fred's flowers were for Lois, not her. That does it. She vows to leave the show then and there, but Fred sics the two gunmen on her. She has no choice but to continue the performance, and the hoods, in Shakespearean costume, accompany her onto the stage.

As the Shakespearean scenes continue, General Howell (Darren McDonnell) arrives backstage, planning to whisk Lilli off to Washington for their wedding. She won't leave the show for fear of the gunmen.

It all works out in the end. Lilli's eventual return to Fred is not entirely convincing -- for that matter, neither is Katharine's capitulation to Petruchio -- but Shakespeare and the Spewacks knew that comedies require happy endings, so they provided them.

And the IOU? A neat plot twist relieves Fred of the need to pay it off. The two gunmen bid a reluctant farewell to their stage careers in one of the highlights of the show, a quaint ditty called "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

The cast members, mostly regulars at Toby's, are fine singers and accomplished dancers. Under the guidance of director Carole Graham Lehan and choreographer Ilona Kessell they offer a solid and satisfying production.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "Kiss Me, Kate" through Nov. 19. Evenings: Doors open 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. Information or reservations: 410-730-8311 or 800-888-6297.

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