Western society’s attitude toward women changed significantly between the debut of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and the end of the second World War. Though no one has been able to definitively interpret the real message in the Bard’s outwardly misogynistic comedy — one that George Bernard Shaw once berated as “one vile insult to womanhood and manhood from the first word to the last” — it is clear that Cole Porter’s modern version, “Kiss Me Kate,” which uses an American actor/actress couple from the 1940’s, took a much more nuanced view of romantic couples.
“Kiss Me, Kate,” playing through Oct. 10 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, focuses on a divorced couple who have been a separated for a year. Actors Lilli Vanessi (Amelia Broome) and Fred Graham (Peter Davenport) find themselves in the peculiar position of playing a couple that fights bitterly on stage in a production of “The Taming of the Shrew” and quarrels just as passionately behind the scenes.
Woven throughout the play are all the usual suspects of a musical from the 1940’s, including two gangsters with a flair for the dramatic, an angel-faced gambler, dancer and heartbreaker extraordinaire and a blonde bombshell who makes it no secret that she can sleep her way to the top.
Despite a few love stories that are followed from curtain to curtain, no one couple is ever depicted as conventionally happy. The opportunistic and sexy Lois Lane (Michele DeLuca) can’t seem to make her lover behave or get him to quit gambling. Meanwhile, he can’t keep her from running off with her sugar daddy of the hour.
Lyric’s production does a wonderful job of highlighting the differences between the love stories the acted on stage and the ones they live out in their real lives. Part of the show is a play within a play: Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The set for these scenes is brightly-colored and cartoonish, emphasizing that only in a world where there are wooden fountains in the town square do men travel to Padua and convince a woman who hates men to be a timid wife in an impressively short amount of time.
The play’s ensemble is small and delightful, but it is the individual performances that really stand out. Peter Davenport delivers an energetic and nuanced Fred Graham, and Michele DeLuca as Lois Lane achieves the double victory of playing the woman every woman hates and remaining someone audiences can sympathize with. Timothy John Smith as Lilli Vanessi’s new beau, General Harrison Howell, delivers a particularly wonderful comic relief in the second act when paired with the gangster team of J.T. Turner and Neil A. Casey. The song “From this Moment On” is also a hilarious highlight.
What makes “Kiss Me, Kate” more appealing to a modern audience than Cole Porter’s other famous productions is the degree to which his brilliant score advances the plot. At nearly three hours long, minimal musical self-indulgence is appreciated by all. Though let’s make one thing clear: This score is nothing that has to merely be sat through.
“Kiss Me, Kate” may have been Cole Porter’s great integrated musical (one that uses its music to advance plot), but the inarguable highlight of Lyric’s performance is the second act opener, “Too Darn Hot.” Even if the song itself has no relevance whatsoever to the plot, save to remind the audience of the show’s Baltimore location, Kennedy Pugh’s rich solo vocals and Ilyse Robbins’ inspired choreography make the number a show stopper.
Though Cole Porter’s beautiful score accompanies a musical that seems more enlightened than Shakespeare’s “Shrew,” there are still moments that raise a contemporary eyebrow. It should be noted that women had only been voting in America for less than thirty years when the show was written, and some actions and lines reveal the prejudices of the time.
That said, the Lyric Stage Company has certainly chosen an energetic and well-cast season opener. With Tufts’ first week of classes already piling on chapters of reading about oppression and war in foreign countries, a little comic relief is much appreciated.