Cole Porter’s genius never ceases to amaze. Few have walked the planet who have been able to more brilliantly marry wit, wisdom, words, rhythm, happiness, sorrow and fun. Where are such inventively-creative minds today? Some excel on a few of the components which, when properly combined, can lift a musical comedy (most certainly as opposed to music theatre) to the highest level, but Porter’s heir apparent has yet to be ferreted out on the Great White Way where art-by-spectacle trumps truly clever lyrics nightly.
Hmmm, a rhyme for Bianca infused with an expression of love?: “I would gladly give up coffee for Sanka”. Easy as pie ‘til you give it a try.
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s opening musical on the 2010 playbill gaily combines the colour, glitz and overstatement of visually driven shows, flooding the thrust stage with a tsunami of crystal-shattering screams (notably from Chilina Kennedy playing Lois Lane/Bianca whose love for madcap mayhem and dick—“I said it [the word] 10 times!” kept the enthused crowd in stitches) and rainbow of costumes (all under the detail-smart eyes of designer David Farley) that—together—nearly upstage the zany dialogue (book by the venerable team of Sam and Bella Spewack) and the delectable, delicious, de-lovely lines that make every song a pearl.
As usual, sadly, the cavernous-sounding body microphones are uniformly present (Peter McBoyle, sound designer). Quite literally, parts of this production could be “phoned in”—various cast members are heard at full cry despite their physical absence on the set.
Director John Boyle, making his Stratford début, has opted for bawdy Bard bravura (the musical within the musical is a new production of The Taming of the Shrew) over a more refined approach which, nonetheless, worked beautifully on many levels.
Yet the three showstoppers relied on frenzied energy (Finale Act I), a generous helping of slick, sleek, sultry movement (“Too Darn Hot”—kudos to Tracey Flye’s deft choreography that played to the troupes’ strengths and challenges without slipping over the line of circus-act gymnastics) and an encyclopaedic “recitation” of the master playwright’s greatest hits (“Brush up Your Shakespeare”) to knock a trio of dingers across the Avon, much to the cheers, hoots and hollers of the kiss-me-katical fans.
Lane’s gambling-addicted beau, Bill Calhoun, is brought to engaging life by Mike Jackson. His powerful voice was heard to advantage both on its own (“Bianca”) or in ensemble (“We Open in Venice”).
His character’s recently penned IOU for 10 Gs provides the opening for a pair of debt collectors (Steve Ross and Cliff Saunders) to appear backstage and demand the cash, or else! Yet as time goes by, the nefarious duo get in touch with their inner greasepaint and end up having to be dragged off the stage when it seems they’ll never run out of Shakespearean verse: “Better mention The Merchant of Venice/ When her sweet pound o’ flesh you would menace/ If her virtue, at first, she defends-well/ Just remind her that All’s Well That Ends Well.” Apart from the actual song, this number is staged in a way that makes some pine for an even bigger dose of vaudeville (at times, Saunders appears to be Jimmy Durante reincarnate) or newcomers scurrying to their favourite digital provider to get another dose of silliness with a message.
The promissory note, natch, has been fraudulently signed. Actor/sirector/producer Fred Graham (also starring as Petruchio) is on the hook for the dough and on the outs with his ex-wife (the action all starts on the first anniversary of their divorce). Juan Chioran digs into to this wide-ranging role and produces a performance to savour. His droll delivery of the comic lines, extra-expressive visage, supporting body language and perfect sense of timing contribute much to the show’s success. The only quibble—similar to his former intended, Lilli Vanessi/Katherine(Monique Lund)—are the ballads (if only an acoustic piano could find its way into the pit above the stage …). They both have a turn at “So in Love,” yet neither can find the delicate shading or—particularly with Lund—truly support the middle register, leaving it to the extremes to carry the music. Perhaps less artificial reinforcement, more natural production might remedy those slight deficiencies.
But when in full-cry (don’t miss her sidesplitting send-up of operatic sopranos) Lund captivates the crowd, marvellously colluding with the cast to provide yet another reason to add this show to this summer’s to-do list. JWR