Last Saturday, to celebrate my birthday, Terri got us tickets to see Wayne Brady in Kiss Me, Kate at the Pasadena Playhouse. I expected Brady to be very good in the role of egotistical actor-director-producer Fred Graham, but what I didn’t expect was how good everyone else in the cast would be, nor how effectively Director Sheldon Epps would reinvent Cole Porter’s classic backstage musical about a theater company staging a production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The behind-the-scenes conflicts reflect the relationships in the play in progress on stage.
Kiss Me, Kate is a standard of the American musical theater, and the current production makes it even more uniquely American by setting the play as if it were a production by the Negro Theatre Project, best remembered today for Orson Welles’ voodoo-themed 1936 production of Macbeth. During the segregation era, numerous African-American theater companies toured the country presenting musicals and dramas to eager audiences; Sheldon Epps’ staging of this show follows in the tradition of the legendary Swingin’ the Dream, in which Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge and Butterfly McQueen starred in jazz musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set to music by Benny Goodman and Count Basie.
For his production, Epps and Music Director Rahn Coleman have created new arrangements for a number of songs, shifting from the typical Broadway sound to a more New Orleans blues-influenced jazz rendition. The opening song, “Another Openin’, Another Show,” begins as a torch ballad and builds to a thundering dance number, giving one the feeling of what a show at the legendary Cotton Club might have been like. It’s such a great opening that Brady’s entrance is almost a let-down. Epps has wisely surrounded Brady with an exceptional supporting cast that keeps him from dominating the stage and makes the production truly an ensemble show. Merle Dandridge does a fantastic job as Lilli Vanessi, Fred’s ex-wife and leading lady, and Terrance Spencer and Joanna A. Jones provide solid performances as Bill the gambler and Lois the gold-digger, the latter spectacular in her rendition of “Always True to You in My Fashion.”
The real showstoppers are Jenelle Lynn Randall and Rogelio Douglas Jr. as Hattie and Paul, Lilli’s assistant and Fred’s dresser, who spend most of their time in the background except when the songs start up. “It’s Too Darn Hot” has never lived up to its title the way it does here.
Kiss Me, Kate runs through October 12 and is well worth seeing.