“Let's Make a Deal's" Wayne Brady as the lead in a revival of "Kiss Me, Kate": It almost sounds like an especially wacky draft in some fantasy stunt-casting league for theater directors.
Sheldon Epps of the Pasadena Playhouse has not only made it happen, he has used it as the inspiration for an ingenious adaptation of the beloved 1948 musical.
In his research Epps learned that in the 1930s and '40s, all-black theater companies did adaptations of Shakespeare plays: “Voodoo Macbeth” and “Swingin’ the Dream,” among others.
Without altering Bella and Samuel Spewack’s original book or Cole Porter’s lyrics, Epps transplants the action of “Kiss Me, Kate” to a black company, opening “Swingin’ the Shrew” — their take on “The Taming of the Shrew” — one hot night in Baltimore.
When ex-spouses Fred Graham (Brady) and Lilli Vanessi (Merle Dandridge) team up to play Petruchio and Kate -- both have moved on to new romantic adventures while secretly yearning for each other -- the line between their onstage and offstage lives blurs.
Theatrical egos and jealous hearts are universal, so the backstage comedy slots easily into this parallel world, whose trappings are brought vibrantly to life on a lush set by John Iacovelli, with sexy costumes by David K. Mickelsen. The famous score, directed by Rahn Coleman, has a thrilling bluesy sound.
The translation isn't perfect, though: For example, it strains credulity that a white Army general with presidential hopes in 1948 would propose to a black actress. On the other hand, Lilli’s fiancé, Gen. Harrison Howell (Pat Towne), has always been a MacGuffin anyway.
It also must be said that some elements of “Kiss Me, Kate” (itself a period update of the discomfiting sexual politics in Shakespeare's “Shrew”) are aging better than others, at least through the lens of American culture.
Maybe in 1948 — and in some parts of the world today — seeing a man spank a woman so enthusiastically that she couldn’t sit down would provoke riotous delight. But here and now it is an undeniably upsetting experience, and a problem that is possibly beyond any director’s power.
Epps’ casting seems designed to minimize the discomfort: Brady makes an appealing, unthreatening Fred/Petruchio. Trim and lithe, if oddly diminished by his James Brown hairpiece, he performs solos in a velvety voice interspersed with friendly chuckles, occasionally working in a frisky improv-style bit. (I got the impression that he would have done this more if given leave; the audience ate it up.)
Dandridge’s Lilli/Kate, in contrast, is so stately and beautiful, her soprano so soaring, her stage presence so dignified, that it’s hard to imagine the fellow daring to bump her elbow, much less to put her over his knee. But her poise makes her humiliation even more painful.
Lilli as written is a pouty, peevish virago; Dandridge comes across instead as a heartbroken goddess, even while gamely growling and sneering through “I Hate Men."
Together they display little of the chemistry that would make their love story persuasive.
Luckily, the fun of the musical doesn’t depend entirely on the leads’ dynamic. The play-within-a-play high jinks provide much comic business and many opportunities for smaller players to shine: Jenelle Lynn Randall performs a delightful “Another Op’nin,’ Another Show”; Joanna A. Jones is a treat in “Tom, Dick or Harry”; and Carlton Wilborn is an unusually amusing Baptista.
The second act unleashes a series of showstoppers so joyously and cleverly written that it is difficult to imagine their charm ever fading, and this production delivers strong renditions of each.
There’s the group number “Too Darn Hot,” which choreographer Jeffrey Polk has invested with an eyebrow-raising, steamy verve. Then a playful, risqué, irresistible “Always True to You in My Fashion,” in which Jones again brings down the house -- three times -- as Lois Lane, the girl as reluctant to commit to one man as she is to relinquish the spotlight.
“Bianca” offers the dancer who plays Bill (Terrance Spencer) an opportunity to dazzle; he rises (literally) to the challenge. And finally there's “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” that barrage of gleefully goofy wordplay, performed by two thugs (Brad Blaisdell and David Kirk Grant) who get stagestruck while attempting to recover a gambling debt.
Ultimately, though, the delights of these disparate numbers can't disguise the lack of a coherent through-line. By failing to draw us into the principals' love story, the show becomes a "Kiss Me, Kate" revue, a series of theatrical stunts, some more successful than others.
“Kiss Me, Kate.” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 12. $57-$145. (626) 356-7529 or www.pasadenaplayhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.