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Review

Old Globe's 'Kiss Me, Kate' steals a smile if not a heart

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

"Kiss Me, Kate," the 1948 backstage musical comedy with the matchless Cole Porter score, seems made for blissed-out summer nights — a classic to be savored with gelato and Prosecco for those wanting to play along with the cockamamie Italian theatrical setting.

Darko Tresnjak's revival at the Old Globe, a co-production with Hartford Stage, wrings enormous delight from the cavalcade of giddy numbers, beginning with "Another Op'nin', Another Show," which administers a prophylactic shot of adrenaline to the audience.

Porter pursues the same pulse-raising strategy after intermission with "Too Darn Hot," a number that doesn't have much dramatic relevance but does a terrific job of reenergizing theatergoers, who may have gotten drowsy from their stop at the bar.

But more likely, Porter knew he was going to have to do something spectacular at the top of Act II to allay any fears of a letup after the surfeit of Act I pleasures. To list just a few of them is enough to send most musical theater buffs swooning: "Why Can't You Behave?," "Wunderbar," "So in Love," "Tom, Dick or Harry" and, of course, the waggishly shrewish "I Hate Men."

Act II might not have quite as many memorable ditties, but it has two comic gems: "Always True to You in My Fashion," sung by kittenish Lois Lane (Megan Sikora), and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," performed by two goons (Joel Blum and Brendan Averett) charged with collecting a gambling debt from the wrong actor currently starring in a tryout production of a ramshackle musical adaptation of "The Taming of the Shrew."

When Porter wrote "Kiss Me, Kate," his star was in eclipse and he was in debilitating pain from his 1937 horseback riding accident. But he summoned his capering genius to create what is widely considered his masterpiece.

What separates "Kiss Me, Kate" from the other popular Porter musicals, such as "Anything Goes," is the ingenious marriage of music and libretto. Working with book writers Sam and Bella Spewack, Porter managed to realize the integrated book musical model perfected in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" — a show that made him feel for a time like an older model of automobile. (Acknowledging the advances made by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Porter once conceded, "Those two made it much harder for everybody else.")

If the cast members at the Old Globe excel more in song than in story, they serve Tresnjak's knockabout approach. The broadness of the playing style can make the book of "Kiss Me, Kate" seem mustier than I remember it from Michael Blakemore's superb 1999 revival starring a marvelous Brian Stokes Mitchell as the self-preening ham Fred Graham. But the fizziness is still fun even when the flavor is attenuated.

Mike McGowan acquits himself admirably in the role of the farcically full-of-himself star of "The Taming of the Shrew." He sings gloriously, he possesses just the right suave jitteriness and he has considerable leading man appeal.

What's conspicuously missing, however, is any connection with Anastasia Barzee's Lilli Vanessi, Fred Graham's former wife, who has been cast as Kate opposite his Petruchio. When Barzee's Lilli sings "So in Love" after she mistakenly thinks Fred has sent her flowers, it's easy to believe that the two are meant to be together. But when you see them interact, the comedy is so feverishly pitched that the actors lose the emotional thread of the story.

Sikora's portrayal of Lois Lane was of a piece with Lois Lane's portrayal of Bianca — let call it overstated, and leave it at that. But Sikora's big Act I number with Tyler Hanes' Bill Calhoun, "Why Can't You Behave?," is sensationally pulled off, as is her Act II romantic alibi "Always True to You in My Fashion." Hanes' amorous retort, "Bianca," is rapturously delivered, but again it's the songwriting lilt rather than the love animating it that's so moving.

This "Kiss Me, Kate" had me smiling from start to finish, but my heart remained untouched.

The show is given a modish visual treatment by scenic designer Alexander Dodge that put me in mind of Rowan & Martin's old sketch comedy show, "Laugh-In," when characters started popping out of cut-out windows of the set for the musical within the musical. A naked statue comes in for some hard whacks in this ribald battle of the sexes that would rather be insouciant than sincere even for just a minute.

The production proceeds almost like a revue, with one great number and funny bit following another. The orchestra (under Kris Kukul's music direction) is first class, Peggy Hickey's choreography ensures the high jinks are on graceful footing and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" had the audience wishing Porter's laugh-inducing lyrics would never end.

This might not be the most seamlessly integrated staging of "Kiss Me, Kate," but it makes for a lighthearted summer outing.

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'Kiss Me, Kate'

Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Aug. 9.

Tickets: Start at $39

Info: (619) 234-5623, http://www.TheOldGlobe.org

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

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