The Gender Wars: Old School

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

Few people will be shocked to hear that the relations between women and men excite powerful passions of all kinds. Indeed, such passions are key forces in the social storms that swirl throughout the early twenty-first-century world. So it seems quite bold for Skylight Music Theater to put on  Kiss Me Kate, a show that was not considered controversial when, say, Joe Biden was a kid, but might stir strong feelings today, with its inspiration in Shakespeare’s arguably misogynistic (and equally rarely produced) The Taming of the Shrew. You could say that the current cultural climate is just too darn hot for these shows. As Biden could assure Cole Porter, these days anything does emphatically not go. 

It would be worthwhile just to see a fine production of a classic show from “the golden age of Broadway musicals,” especially in the lighthearted spirit with which director Ray Jivoff imbues it. But it’s fascinating to see how the show holds up seventy years after it first opened, in a world almost inconceivably different from Porter’s, who grew up when the Model T was still new on the road. The answer is: pretty darn well.

Though Petruchio’s abuse of Katherine still raises hackles (as it always has, evidently). Kiss Me Kate uniquely creates a sort of cultural time tunnel: Elizabethan mores at one end and this production on the other, with post-war screwball comedy in the middle. It’s to our contemporary musical theater industry what the cotton gin is to high-tech fabrics: rather primitive in comparison, and you can see all the gears moving, but it has the authentic charm of an art form that was still trying to figure itself out.  It cobbles together elements from comic opera, like the schmaltzy “Wunderbar” (does anyone else remember that the melody was once used in a radio jingle for a Wisconsin cheese?), with vaudevillian entr’actes like the patter-y “We Open in Venice” and “Brush up your Shakespeare.” The dated weirdness of ”Tom Dick and Harry” with its peculiar (maybe suggestive?) chorus of  “Dick, dick, dick/ A dicka dick” shares the stage with the smoky sophistication of classics like “Why Can’t You Behave.” It’s easy to see why the show ran for over a thousand performances in New York.

photo by Ross Zentner

Jivoff brings the world of the stage to vivid life with countless little interactions between the players, and it’s all delivered with affection and panache by a crack company of singer/actor/dancers to restore the freshness and innocence of escapist entertainment. As the leading lady, Rana Roman renders a show-stopping “I Hate Men,” flinging prop salamis into the wings with venomous relish. As a gold-digger who finds every opportunity to flaunt her assets, Kaylee Annable delivers an equally rousing “Always True to You in My Fashion.” Doug Jarecki and Kelly Doherty flash sparking comic chops as a pair of unusually dignified mobsters; Jonathan Gillard Daly offers a cartoonish caricature of a MacArthur-like military bigwig, and Joe Capstick takes the Gene Kelly prize for his staircase gymnastics in “Too Darn Hot.” Jivoff’s direction makes every song it’s own little play; this is more entertainment for your money than most three other shows in town put together.

photo by Ross Zentner

The battle of the sexes plays out mostly between Roman’s character and her ex-husband, a philandering egomaniac leading man played impeccably by Andrew Varela, whose spot-on characterization is matched only by his crystal-shattering tenor. Together, they hit every beat of the couple’s Punch-and-Judy verbal sparring. But when they sing together, recalling happier days, their voices soar: how could they not reunite when they sound so good together? In the end, Roman does sing Kate’s embarrassingly servile speech about women submitting to their husbands, but she does so with soft strength and dignity—and it’s Petruchio who kneels.

photo by Ross Zentner

So—does this theatrical fossil offer any insights for our current state of strife between the sexes? Maybe only this romantic one: that men and women are better together than apart, and that love is more important than winning the war.

Skylight Music Theatre presents

Kiss Me Kate

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Sam and Bella Spewack

playing through June 16

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