With smaller budgets and a limited scope for talent, most people judge regional theater to be mediocre. There should be praise for offering a wider range of performers than might be staged on Broadway, mixing age, talent, and experience while permitting a less formal relationship between audience and performer. The Village Light Opera Group brings the accessibility of regional theater to New York City with their production of Kiss Me, Kate. Although Samuel and Bella Spewack’s adaptation of Taming of the Shrew seems a little implausible (Since when has the mob ever forgiven a $10,000 debt?), Cole Porter’s songs are finger-tapping good.
Scenic designer Joe Egan brings functional sets, using the actual backstage for the rehearsal scenes and movable parts to represent different Shrew scenes. Against a white sheer drape, Michael Abrams casts simple lights in bright colors. Having a live orchestra is always a treat, but the pit is too high, or the stage not high enough, since the taller musicians actually block some stage view, especially precious for a musical with a dancing ensemble. Although I appreciate the very enthusiastic conductor, Debra Litwak, during the lengthy overture, I was pulled from the action on stage by the action in the pit. Sometimes the musicians are more exciting to watch than the actors, who pan to the audience for laughs or strain to hear solo and group lines during songs. The performers project, but it is hard to tell if the orchestra is too loud or the ensemble too soft.
In gathered waists and character shoes, the ensemble brings a feeling of the 1940s to the rehearsal and backstage scenes, while the Shrew production features Elizabethan garb. Niimar Feldner’s costume design allows for the dancers to move, but in major numbers dancing seems unpolished, with some of the dancers looking like they learned the choreography an hour before curtain. The musical theater ballet for this production isn’t quite rehearsed enough and doesn’t quite come together as a corps, despite its simplicity. It is also understandably difficult to find male dancers, but some dance sequences with partnering and flirting between the young female dancers and the not so young males is borderline lecherous and distracts from the main characters.
Lilli (Karen Leah Mason) first appears in a black slinky dress with a black, wide-brimmed hat and black pumps, telling any who are familiar with the play but not the musical that Lili “is” as well as plays Katherine. This conjecture proves correct when she opens her mouth to scream “Bastard!” at Fred (Bruce Rebold), her ex-husband and onstage Petruccio. Rebold has a nice baritone, but his tights and codpieces are far from flattering. In Lilli’s “So In Love,” Mason sounds shrill and forced— perhaps it’s a personal preference for the classic to be more earthy and hearty for a sultry alto rather than an operatic soprano. Her gestures are empty of intention and emotion, rote movements flung about in practiced routines. It is unclear whether the Spewacks’s adaptation indicates the quality of the troupe performing the internal play, but it appears that the only direction is for Mason to scream like a harpy, especially piercing during “I Hate Men.” It seems appropriate for the song, but blistering ears beg for mercy. Mason and Rebold play off each other well, but as Lili and Fred, they only play like they are in love. When they are playing Katherine and Petruccio, they seem more comfortable, better at being head-to-head than head over heels, but no better actors. The verse that is appropriated from Shrew is mostly garbled, and the fight choreography between them is laughable—with a foot of space between them, I could see Rebold clap his hands as Mason didn’t slap his face. Yes, folks, it’s as confusing as it sounds.
Amanda Marcheschi as Lois/Bianca has a fine, clear voice that rings out over the auditorium, and she looks snappy in a pink dress with black detailing and other flattering pieces. Marcheschi gives a consistent performance; she is cute, bubbly, and an exciting flirt who can’t help that men fall all over themselves for her. Her main beau, Bill/Lucentio (Bj Hemann), also has a strong presence as a lovable hoofer who can’t stay away from the gambling tables. The two hold the show together for the first Act.
After intermission, the show picks up its feet with renewed verve and spark. Denise Burton and Tim Avant shine as Hattie and Paul leading “Too Darn Hot” with flirty fun. Rhythmic and swinging, the song is sexy and contagious, even though the ladies are wearing contemporary-looking dancewear. Mason brings real emotion to the second act, steeling herself for a stable cardboard marriage to Harrison Howell (Jeff Kurnit), then surrendering to her true love. Rebold’s reprise of “So in Love” sounds smoother and more luscious than Mason’s version, but his butchery of Petruccio’s monologue from the end of Act 4, scene 1 is grating, like a wind-up toy in the eardrum. Marcheschi and Hemann hold steady with Lois’s “Always True To You (In My Fashion),” complete with dramatic exit on a rolling wardrobe rack, and Bill’s “Bianca,” a tribute to his flirty love. Hemann leads Marcheschi through a charming little pas de deux, which ends with a flourish in an ice skater’s pose.
The highlight of the entire show is the pair of gangsters (Eric Bettleheim and Trey Sandusky), who from their first appearance give the production a heaping spoonful of grandiose fun. Affable doofuses and ardent theater admirers in suits, fedoras, and saddle shoes, they almost forget they are thugs, cultured in the prison library, not on the Upper East Side. Before they return to their gangster duties, Bettleheim and Sandusky strongly and confidently sing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” Cole Porter’s deliciously clever song that shows his wordplay at its best. With fake exits to get straw hats, then top hats and canes, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum explain how to catch the ladies by quoting Shakespeare, and the audience loves every pun. And as cast members pour from backstage to the house, I remember that this is regional theater, and it’s supposed to be fun, for audience and cast alike.