Despite the mixed blessing of seeing at least six versions of Kiss Me, Kate -- including the near-perfection of Annapolis Chorale's version in October -- Colonial Players holds their own with its new show, bringing intimacy and offering fresh insight into Cole Porter's classic.
The play-within-a-play follows the behind-the scenes shenanigans of four main characters in a traveling version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew that has just arrived at Baltimore's Ford's Theatre.
Director and leading man Fred Graham was once married to Lilli Vanessi, who plays Katherine to his Petruchio. Fred is now involved with former chorus girl Lois Lane, who plays Bianca. Lois secretly loves Bill Calhoun, who plays Lucentio and has a gambling problem.
Kiss Me, Kate, which opened on Broadway in 1948, has survived and even flourished through countless revivals thanks to Porter, who wittily engages the Bard with his consummate 20th-century sophistication. This post-World War II piece has a large element of nostalgia reflecting a now-vanished romanticism. Porter's score defines the era's wit and urbanity in tunes like "So In Love," "Always True to You," "Wunderbar," "Where Is the Life that Late I Led?" "Too Darn Hot," "Another Op'nin, Another Show" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."
Kate works well in the Colonial Players theater's in-the-round setting, which lends an intimacy to the backstage scenes and transforms easily for Shakespeare's Shrew staging. Director Beverly Hill van Joolen gets high marks for pacing the action briskly with seamless scene changes and for drawing spirited performances from her cast.
Music Director Pete Thompson deserves kudos for the spirited solo and chorus arrangements along with the excellent realization of Porter's timeless score by the live combo.
Debuting as a Colonial Players choreographer, Theresa Olson creates fresh, lively choreography. Also choreographing a few numbers is Nancy Dall, whose work is equally spirited.
In the dual roles of Lilli/Kate, Catherine Chiappa comically projects the more shrewish aspects of both roles, reaching a peak vocally in "I Hate Men," but is a bit less skilled in conveying Lili's vulnerability and lingering affection for her ex-husband.
As Fred/Petruchio, Matt Garcia deserves high marks for stepping into the role with only one week's preparation time after illness felled actor Gary Adamsen. Garcia conveys Fred's mix of affection and distrust for Lilli along with a leading-man vanity and vulnerability. Garcia delivers a delightful "Where is the Life That Late I Led" and a heartfelt "So In Love," and he manages to make the most of his every comic line, while doing justice to the Bard.
Triply talented Jamie Miller as Lois/Bianca proved to be an excellent actress, first-rate dancer and fine singer, bringing pizazz to her "Always True to You." Miller also delivers comic lines skillfully.
Playing Bill/Lucentio, the always reliable Ronnie Schronce delivers another stellar performance -- stylishly tap dancing to offer a lively "Bianca" with a male dance trio. A fine singer, Schronce's version of "Why Can't You Behave?" becomes a sweet, sexy musical plea.
As Gangsters 1 and 2, who hold the leading man and lady hostage because of a mistaken idea about gambling debts, Steve Migdal and Jeff Sprague steal every scene they're in. Together they deliver a show-stopping "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," which has some of the most erudite and witty lyrics ever penned by the master.
Bravos to the quartet of live musicians who brought the timeless score to life. There is an added bonus of the delectable sound of the piano played as if channeling Porter's irresistable, charming suavity.
Kiss Me, Kate continues at Colonial Players' theater at 108 East St. in Annapolis after an Easter weekend break. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through April 5. 410-268-7373 or www.cplayers.com.