It’s been a while since the Cole Porter classic Kiss Me, Kate has graced a local stage, and it’s always a treat to hear Porter’s skills as both composer and witty lyricist on display. In the Players’ current production (based on the 1999 revival version of the show), the audience also gets to enjoy some vivid performances in the leading roles.
Players veterans Chris Caswell (Fred) and KJ Hatfield (Lilli) are the bickering costars (and former spouses, still in love, of course) of a musical version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The goings-on backstage mirror some of the romantic byplay onstage, as Caswell’s Petruchio tries to tame Hatfield’s sharp-tongued Kate. Throw in the necessary complications—a pretty, promiscuous showgirl (Jennifer Baker), her gambling boyfriend/partner (Steven Bikfalvy), two funny gangsters, played by David Abolafia and Mike Nolan (come on, you gotta have gangsters in a show like this), and Lilli’s no-nonsense general-fiance (Bob Fahey), and you’ve got a situation worthy of Shakespeare himself.
KJ Hatfield and Chris Caswell in the Players' Kiss Me, Kate.
On opening night, there were some dialogue hesitations and audio problems in the first scenes that quickly worked themselves out. It’s enjoyable to watch Caswell and Hatfield throw themselves into their fight scenes with zest. They each have their tenderer moments, too, as they gradually realize they can’t forget each other. Since the performers skew toward the older side for these roles, it makes it a little confusing to imagine the chronology of their early days together, on and offstage, and one might feel that by this point in their relationship they should be past some of the tumult of ego and temper younger couples might exhibit. But I doubt the Sarasota audience will let that trouble them much.
Aside from the opening number (Another Op’ning, Another Show), most of the larger ensemble numbers are not particularly strong in their execution. But some of the clever Porter tunes are excellently delivered by the stars; a favorite is Caswell’s Where Is the Life That Late I Led?, as Petruchio laments the loss of his playboy days. And Jennifer Baker as Lois/Bianca really comes across, both with the frolicsome Tom, Dick or Harry, as Bianca plays with her suitors’ affections, and on Always True to You in My Fashion, where those risqué Porter lyrics add a lot of zip. As her partner, Bikfalvy didn’t seem to register much in Act 1, but he fared better in Act II, especially on the song Bianca.
Putting aside any opening night awkwardness, Steven Flaa’s direction and choreography get to the essence of the piece, with occasional problems hearing some singers’ lyrics due to their movements and the sometimes overpowering nature of the orchestra. Dee Richards’ period costumes add welcome flashes of color to the stage, and gangsters Abolafia and Nolan do the same with their underworld characterizations. No matter how many times you hear it, you can still marvel at the way Porter worked so many play titles and references into Brush Up Your Shakespeare.
Kiss Me, Kate continues through Sept. 25; call 365-2494 or go to theplayers.org.