By George Basler
When it comes to the giants of American musical theater, Cole Porter is near the top of the list, and Kiss Me Kate is arguably his greatest show with a basket full of classic songs in service of a boisterous “battle of sexes” plot.
The Endicott Performing Arts Center, in combination with Theatre Street Productions, will present the musical Sept. 14-17 at EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theater, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott.
The show is a classic, filled with songs that are “some of the most iconic in contemporary history,” said Andrea Gregori, Theatre Street Production’s founder, who will play the female lead in the EPAC production.
“Honestly, it’s a role I’ve always wanted to do. It’s been on my bucket list,” she said. Kiss Me Kate was a smash hit when it first opened on Broadway in 1948 and represented a comeback for Porter after a series of unsuccessful shows. The husband-and-wife team of Bella and Samuel Spewack recruited Porter to write the music and lyrics, and he responded with a score that dazzles with its catchy rhythms and witty, sophisticated lyrics.
The score is so good that the original cast recording has been inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for its “cultural, artistic, and/or historical significance.”
The plot centers on the backstage antics surrounding a troubled musical production of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Fred Graham, the show egotistical producer and star, is feuding with his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi, a known diva, who is his leading lady. They bicker and battle to a boiling point both on and off stage.
A secondary story features the relationship between the show’s featherbrained ingenue, Lois Lane, and her gambler boyfriend, Bill Calhoun, who is in hock to gangsters for past debts.
Kiss Me Kate captures the excitement and nerves of putting on a show and, as such, is “a love letter from theater people to theater people”, said Jarod Hinton who is playing the Fred/Petruchio character.
The show is also “a snapshot of gender relationships in Shakespeare’s time and Cole Porter’s time,” Hinton said.
Gregori calls the role of Lilli/Katharine “a wonderful challenge that combines my love of music and theater with elements of Shakespeare.”
Both Hinton and Gregori are familiar faces in local and regional productions, appearing in many shows over the years. This is also the case with Jana Kucera and Matt Gaska, who are playing the second leads of Lois/Bianca and Bill/Lucentio. Other performers in the large cast include Michelle Thompson, Joe Foti, Rick Barton, Rich Vollmer and Jack Carr.
“It’s a pleasure to do this show,” said Pat Foti, EPAC’s artistic director, who is directing the production. The 16 cast members are “great,” and Porter’s score remains fresh and lively. “Too Darn Hot,” “Wunderbar,” “So in Love” and Brush Up Your Shakespeare” are just some of the standards.
One of the show’s main strengths is the banter of the supporting cast, Hinton said, noting that the musical has singing gangsters, tap dancers and nightclub singers trying to make it big on Broadway. In other words, it’s meant to be fun. The goal of the EPAC production is to send audience members away with “happy, smiling faces” Foti said.
While the musical is a classic, some critics fault Kiss Me Kate for duplicating some of the sexism in Shakespeare’s original play.
But Gregori has a different interpretation. She views Taming of the Shrew as a satire about what women had to face during the playwright’s time. “I see it as Shakespeare’s own statement on feminism,” she said, adding Katherine is only pretending to be tamed at the end of the play: “She’s as feisty as ever.”
Likewise, the main characters in Kiss Me Kate fight like cats and dogs, but in the end care about each other. “It’s a statement on how the sexes can find common ground and understand each other,” Gregori said.
That’s a message that remains as relevant as ever, she emphasized.
The EPAC cast will be singing with a pre-recorded musical track instead of a live orchestra. Paula Bacorn is the musical director. Emily Foti is doing the choreography.
IF YOU GO: Kiss Me Kate will be performed Sept. 14-17 at the Endicott Performing Arts Center, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($23 for seniors and children). Reserved seating is available through the EPAC box office and at www.EndicottArts.com.