1948 was a crazy year. It was the year Harry Truman won against all odds, one of the greatest upsets in American history. Porsche made its first car. Andrew Lloyd Webber was born.
And it was the year “Kiss Me, Kate” hit Broadway.
Today we have our own presidential upset, Porsche has an SUV, and Webber has made his own popular musicals. A lot has changed since 1948, but “Kiss Me, Kate” is still around with the same energy.
The musical, which opened on campus last night, has enjoyed many revivals since its debut almost 60 years ago, when it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, the first time that award was given. It has since won another Tony Award for its Broadway revival in 2000.
“Kiss Me, Kate” contains all of the elements of a Broadway musical, Director James Brandon said. It keeps to the classic Broadway sound, with saxophones and strings and strains of upbeat dance tunes throughout, by way of a unique self-awareness provided by the cast of a Baltimore theatre producing a musical adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare.
In the dressing rooms and backstage, the relationships among cast members create conflict that bleed into their performance. Lilli Vanessi, played by junior Glynis Gilio, and Fred Graham, played by junior Jonathan Henreckson, are a divorced couple who work together and play Katherine and Petruchio in the adaptation. It is through the fiction of theater that the reality of their romance is brought to light through their performance in “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Shakespeare’s misogyny is not softened in the adaptation to Broadway, and the treatment of women even in 20th century Baltimore mirrors the farcical understanding of marriage that underpins the original play. It is in this bleak world that Gilio shines in her performance of “I Hate Men,” a song set in Padua as she plays Kate. She is convincing yet controlled, carefully choreographed yet carefree. She is Kate and Lilli at the same time — no easy task.
Gilio’s is not the exception, but the rule of Hillsdale’s Tower Players performance.
“You need a lot of people who can act, sing, and dance,” Brandon said. “Often people can’t do all three.”
But Hillsdale students rose to the challenge.
“There are 22 students on stage, 16 in the pit orchestra, and about a dozen backstage,” Brandon said.
The best numbers in the musical take place in Baltimore, behind the scenes of musical theater, where the audience can get a feel for the struggle and jubilation of the actors, rather than in the stifled atmosphere of the staged adaptation. The show excels in seamless choreography, and Hillsdale’s performance thanks to guest choreographer Phil Simmons, Associate Professor of Musical Theatre and Dance at Eastern Michigan University.
One such example of killer choreography comes from freshman Isaac Johnson, who stars in the song “Too Darn Hot” and lights up the stage with his graceful and passionate performance as Paul, Fred Graham’s assistant who hates the heat because it’s too hot to hang out with his lover. Along with him, the cast delivers a delightful dance that really brings out the Broadway feel of the musical through the high-energy yet mesmerizingly clean choreography over what sounds like a condensation of the best show tunes.
Senior Gianna Marchese, who plays Lois Lane, and junior Mark Naida, who plays Bill Calhoun, both sell their characters through songs of passion in their own fashion: Marchese with her silky voice in her song “Always True to You in My Fashion,” and Naida with his whole being wrapped up in wooing Lois in “Bianca.”
The gangsters who get involved in the already difficult relationship between Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi pay tribute to the Bard in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” where they expound extemporaneously on the excellencies of knowing classical literature in order to impress the fairer sex.
The song’s title is also sound advice for anyone who has not seen “The Taming of the Shrew” — much of the drama of the musical is wrapped inside the adapted play. Even a quick peek on Wikipedia before attending may help readers better understand what is going on because Shakespeare’s language can be hard to understand at times.
While it doesn’t have as much adult content as “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Kiss Me, Kate” has enough misogyny and language to offend some sensibilities, but overall, the musical keeps with the spirit of Shakespearean sexual humor and a traditionally comical view of love and marriage. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is an abundance of puns based on Shakespeare’s work, so the viewer’s Hamlet from literature classes in high school may finally pay off.
Despite the nods to literary genius, the point is to not analyze the play, but to take it in and appreciate it for what it is.
“The music is annoying, and the plot is just really silly, but it’s still entertaining,” Naida said. “I hope we can make people both laugh and smile.”
Though the show runs for nearly three hours, it passes quickly as a result of the energy radiating from the cast and the pit orchestra in perfect tandem which will continue every night this week at 8 p.m. with a matinee showing Sunday at 2 p.m.
From the bright colors of cheerful choruses, down to the incandescent box lights that surround the stage, “Kiss Me, Kate” is Broadway through and through, with a few tips on taming the shrew.