Pictured clockwise, Michelle Duffy, Kevin Bailey, Lesli Margherita and John Bisom tackle Shakespeare and huge Broadway numbers in the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities’ production of the Cole Porter classic ‘Kiss Me Kate.’ (photo by Alysa Brennan)
One of Cole Porter's most successful and beloved productions, “Kiss Me Kate,” comes to the Redondo Beach Arts Center next week in a musical extravaganza that has filled theaters for nearly 60 years.
In “Kiss Me Kate,” exes take their battle to the stage when Fred Graham and ex-wife Lilli Vanessi reunite for a production of Shakespeare's “Taming of the Shrew,” starring as Petruchio and Kate. Added to the mix are a young couple, Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, struggling to keep their relationship afloat and some gangsters looking for compensation from Calhoun who has a weakness for gambling.
“Kiss Me Kate's” 1948 production won numerous Tony awards including one for best musical and its 1999 revival took home many more awards including the Tony for best revival of a musical.
Many changes to “Kiss Me Kate” were made for its revival including an updated book and new arrangements, according to director and choreographer Dan Mojica, who's taken the helm of the production. In its 16 years, it is the first time the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities has tackled “Kiss Me Kate.”
“It has this vibrant new energy to it,” Mojica said. “It is kind of thrilling for us because it feels like a new play. “I've actually done ‘Kiss Me Kate' twice before and this is the first time where I've felt, ‘Oh, wow, it feels like it's coming to what you might expect from a musical of today. It's a huge show. There's no undermining that.”
Kevin Bailey is no stranger to the Civic Light Opera starring in “Jekyll & Hyde” and “Annie Get Your Gun.” He said the role of Fred Graham is a part he's wanted to play for a long time.
“Most actors up to a time say they want to play Hamlet someday,” Bailey said. “Well, OK, that would be great if that was in your chemistry to do that. But in musical theater, and as you go through various periods of your life, it's like sadly you come of an age and if you haven't played young nubile parts, those are past you now. I'm now turning, heading toward 47; this is one of those parts you sort of grow into as a male who does musical theater. It was one of the parts I most sought and have auditioned for including the 1999 revival.”
Fresh from a Pasadena Playhouse revival of “Can Can,” Michelle Duffy, who plays the other half of the bickering duo, said she is enjoying the trend of performing in Porter musicals.
“I'm riding this wave of refurbished Cole Porter and I couldn't be happier,” Duffy said. “It's fabulous music and really good updated scripts, really meaty plum roles for a woman to play. I've actually stepped away from musical theater for quite a bit and I can't imagine a better way to jump back in. This is just a thrill.”
Duffy added it was a challenging role, especially how to approach playing Lilli.
“She's dramatic and she's combative and she has a temper,” Duffy said. “There's a natural tendency to slide into that being all she is and it being shrill and kind of being one or two notes. The challenge is finding the softness in her and finding the stuff that's lovable about her and finding the stuff that makes you really want to cheer for these two to actually get it together eventually.”
Not only do the actors have to perform large musical numbers, the prevalence of Shakespeare in “Kiss Me Kate” is also a challenge.
“This is a show within a show,” Mojica said. “So you not only have the normality of actors playing actors in the show but here they have to do Shakespeare as well. We've pulled out sections of ‘Taming of the Shrew,' the book was written with the actual text intact so they've got their work cut out for them to not only tackle vocally, acting but they also have to tackle Shakespeare on top of that. It's a challenge.”
“Kiss Me Kate” debuted on Broadway on Dec. 30, 1948, at the New Century Theatre with such Broadway standards as “Too Darn Hot” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” More than 1,500 performances of “Kiss Me Kate” were performed at the New Century and the Shubert Theatre, making it the longest running Porter musical at the time. In 1953, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel and Ann Miller starred in the film adaptation.
“It's great to be in a show that's about theater,” Bailey said. “It's such a joy to be in a play like that. From the opening number, it's another all-time classic. I suppose it's arguable that this is Cole Porter's all-time greater score than ‘Anything Goes.' I actually think in my opinion it is a greater score because of the complexity.”
Through all their quarrels, the characters in the end discover they truly love each other. “There's great heart in this show,” according to Mojica and that is one reason, besides that it's “relative to everyday life,” that “Kiss Me Kate,” has endured for so long in theaters.
“It's an everyman story no matter who you're with along the way,” Mojica said. “You do have battles. There's always an underlining thing in that if you love the person you're never going to stop loving them no matter what you go through. It rings true especially for married couples, people who've been together for a great deal of time, it allows them to see themselves and that's why people have such a good time. There's great humor in the show. Jokes coming out left and right but ultimately it's two people coming together reflecting a life, having gone through experiences, ups and downs, lefts and rights, but realizing ultimately that deep down they love each other.”
“Kiss Me Kate” also stars John Bisom as Calhoun and Lesli Margherita as Lane. Lateefah Devoe (Hattie), Jeff Griggs (Gen. Howell), Herschel Sparber (gangster No. 1), Jeffrey Landman (gangster No. 2) and Bart Williams (Harry/Baptista) round out the cast.
“Kiss Me Kate” opens with previews from Wednesday, Sept. 26, through Friday, Sept. 28, with 8 p.m. shows. The gala opening will take place Saturday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m. The show closes with a 7 p.m. show Sunday, Oct. 14.
The Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center is located at the corner of Manhattan Beach and Aviation boulevards. For more information, call (310) 372-4477 or visit www.civiclightopera.com.