To get it right, the director of Cole Porter's 1948 musical comedy, Kiss Me, Kate, must urge his actors to speak the speech, as Shakespeare advised, meaning they deliver the lyrics with all their wit and wily internal rhymes intact. One has only to recall the character Fred Graham appearing as Petruchio in the show-within-a-show asking in song, What do you do, a quarter of two, with only a shrew to kiss? ("Where Is The Life That Late I Led?") to recapture the pleasures of Porter's masterpiece.
Happily, Barrington Stage, and director Joe Calarco, have produced a zinger of a revival of Kiss Me, Kate now running through July 12. With the help of musical director Darren R. Cohen, the leads were cast for both their diction and their vocal chops, in addition to stage presence and sympathy for the fragile egos of the show-folk they portray. By embellishing the mix with Lorin Latarro's largely inventive choreography to provide danced-out transitions as well as the big numbers — a "Too Darn Hot" with the chorus boys and girls stripped down to their underwear — BSC has mounted a theatrical treat to open the Berkshires season.
Elizabeth Stanley, a genuine diva in the role of fictional diva Lilli Vanessi, stage and screen star and ex-wife of Graham, takes top honors in leading the ensemble. She's a feisty blonde with a glorious soprano voice and physical strength — even while draped in heavy Elizabethan gowns for much of the evening — that allow her to lunge around the stage and fling a three-legged stool at the object of her displeasure, Paul Anthony Stewart. Stewart stars as Graham, Vanessi's ex-husband who has invited her to play opposite him in The Taming of the Shrew — a musical, which he is producing out-of-town. Stewart matches Stanley in his ability to punch a song, often accompanied by a series of oversize gestures and grimaces to make sure the audience reads his intentions. Of course, the couple is still in love, despite haughty protestations to the contrary, and also wildly jealous of the significant others that surface to roil the plot. (Bella and Samuel Spewack wrote the musical's book so that it tracks the Vanessi-Graham meltdown alongside the shenanigans of Petruchio wooing Katharine.)
The adorable Mara Davi as Lois Lane/Bianca and Tyler Hanes as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio back up the leads with both singing and dancing smarts, especially notable in Davi's luscious rendition of "Always True to You (In My Fashion)," opposite Hanes' case of the sulks. Matthew Bauman as the nerdy dresser who breaks out in stunning dance moves for "Too Darn Hot" is a surprise, while Carlos Lopez and Michael Dean Morgan predictably bring down the house for "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."
Despite the minute-by-minute blocking, the two most effective scenes come in Act 2, when director Calarco allows Stewart to just sit still and sing a reprise of "So in Love," as if to himself, and Stanley to simply present Katharine's final speech (set to a song by Porter) to all women about their behavior. Stripped of dancers and fancy moves, there's a keen sense of an emotion in these scenes that are intimately shared with the audience. These moments allow one to wonder if, perhaps, the Porter-Spewack material does not need Petruchio dropping to the ground in push-ups while vowing to wed and bed Kate, or the dancing couples in Austrian peasant dress backing the Stanley-Stewart duet in "Wunderbar," as seen earlier in the evening.
At the end, when Stanley/Kate bends to her husband, Stewart/Petruchio, he lifts her up, kneeling before her, and kisses her hand, it becomes clear here that this is a marriage of equals, both in Shakespeare-land and for the actors onstage.