In an era when the absurdity of misogyny is finally being examined and hopefully eliminated, Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s mid-century musical comedy play within a play take on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew could be seen as an interesting choice for Nashville’s favorite dinner theatre, but under the carefully creative eye of director/choreographer Everett Tarlton, and with a talented cast helmed by the Nashville theatrical presence that is Martha Wilkinson, any misgivings are quickly put to rest, for neither director, Tarlton’s nor star, Wilkinson’s talents can—or should—be tamed.
The scene is set with the show’s literal and figurative opening number Another Op’nin’, Another Show in which members of a theatrical troupe ready themselves for exactly that, all to the playful and oddly rhyming lyrics. Only Cole Porter could convince an audience that Baltimore is pronounced (at least in song) as Baltimo, because that obviously rhymes with show. From the start, Tarlton showcases his energetic cast with Katie Bruno front and center as Hattie on this virtual all-in number. It should be noted that in spite of Chaffin’s relatively small center stage, surrounded on all four sides by tables and tables of patrons, Tarlton’s direction and choreography fill every available square inch of that stage with remarkably succinct and carefully choreographed movement. Never once does it seem like the actors are crowed or that they’re moving to avoid collision. It’s all done purposely and perfectly.
The next number, Why Can’t You Behave serves to introduce the show’s secondary plot as ingenue Lois Lane, played by the simply stunning and ridiculously effervescent Mallory Mundy, chastises and teases her ne’er do-well gambling beau, Bill Calhoun, played by Chaffin’s newcomer, Caleb Pless. Mundy is one of those Nashville theatre actors I’ve oft referred to as one of my theatre crushes, and crush it she does. She plays Lois with the perfect combination of ditz and wits. Not being familiar with Pless’ stage work prior to this role, He definitely holds his own in scenes with Mundy and when given the opportunity to showcase his talents (read on, it’s coming) he does do with skills and ease that are sure to make him a familiar face at Chaffin’s going forward.
It’s not until the show’s third number, Wunderbar that we meet the aforementioned Wilkinson as Lilli Vanessi as she makes a divalicious entrance to join her sparing partner, Matthew Carlton as her ex-husband, Fred Graham. The chemistry between Wilkinson and Carlton is no accident. When I spoke with the two as part of an upcoming Rapid Fire 20 Q, they both revealed that this isn’t the first time they’ve played these roles, having starred in a production of Kiss Me, Kate on the same Chaffin’s stage twenty-six years ago. Over the years, the two have shared many stages together, and developed a friendship. All that history, even unspoken, is evident in the playfulness in which they address these two roles.
Interspersed between the now-familiar Porter soundtrack, dialogue reveals the show’s full plot. Based on the real-life on-and-off-stage tumultuous relationship between director/actor Alfred Lunt and his actress wife, Lynn Fontanne, Kiss Me, Kate tells the story of Lilli Vanessi, a famous movie star who has returned to the stage to star in a musical production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which her ex, Fred (Carlton) is not only producing and directing, but also co-starring alongside her as Petrucio to her Katherine. Further complicating things, a couple of heavies arrive to collect on Bill’s gambling debt, but think Fred is the one they’re looking for. As if that weren’t enough, Lilli reveals she’s intent on marrying Harrison Howell, a wealthy war hero. Oh, and did I mention Lilli accidentally receives opening night flowers from Fred? Flowers intended for Lois.
Back to the musical numbers…When Wilkinson belts out So In Love, one of my favorite Cole Porter tunes, she does so with a near-operatic style that’s a subtle reminder of the originals of the Broadway musicals, for Broadway was originally indeed a more accessible, popular music-infused modernization of opera. On the subject of subtle elements within Chaffin’s Kate. Whether by happy accident, or clever purpose-filled design, Wilkinson seems to be paying homage to two Hollywood icons connected to Kate and The Shrew, as she sports two distinctive looks with her character, Lilli and the character of Katherine in the show wishing the show. When Wilkinson—who in real life wears her hair in a blonde pixie hairstyle—appears as mega-movie star Lilli Vanessi, she sports a raven-hued pageboy wig with wavy side-swept bangs reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor, who starred in 1967’s film adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Meanwhile, when on stage as Katherine the titular character of the play within a play, she’s seen in a long curly red wig, a la 1953’s Kiss Me, Kate’s Kathryn Grayson.
While We Open In Venice doesn’t exactly have the same oomph as some of the show’s more familiar tunes, it does serve to illustrate the tedium of going on the road with a touring company. The audience is next treated once again to the fireball that is Mundy, this time as her Shrew character, Bianca, Katherine’s younger, less shrewish sister, as she weighs her marital options with Lucentio (Pless), Gremio (Christian Redden) and Hortensio (Curtis Reed) with the fun and decidedly mid-century Tom, Dick or Harry.
Carlton’s rich vocals shine in I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua, a perfectly Shakespearean sing-songy number with the male ensemble. Every time I hear this song, I can’t help but think Monty Python must have been inspired by it as it is so in the Spamalot wheelhouse. With Carlton at the helm, it’s an example of talent over content as his performance gives the silly song an unexpected air of sophistication with a knowing wink.
On the subject of the show’s Shakespearean tones, Timothy Orr Fudge plays Henry who, in turn plays Baptista, Katherine and Bianca’s father. Aside from Carlton’s Petrucio, Fudge’s Baptista performs the bulk of the Shakespearean dialogue and though his stage-time is somewhat limited, he manages to steal the spotlight from Carlton, Wilkinson and the rest with his enjoyably animated reactions and expressions. A thirty year veteran of the Nashville stage, Fudge is the joy of acting personified.
Back to Wilkinson for I Hate Men, another highpoint of the show, the soundtrack and Wilkinson’s performance, for you know the words she’s singing just aren’t true. To quote Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” For as much as she alleges her distain for the supposed stronger sex in this Porter classic, she does so with a wink and bravado that tells another tale. It was at this point in the show that I realized I could just sit and listen to Wilkinson belt out show tune after show tune and be perfectly content.
Soon enough, Carlton’s Petrucio attempts to court Katherine during Were Thine That Special Face…until he discovers Lilli’s has read the note attached to the flowers she intercepted that were intended for Lois. What ensues is likely the most famous scene in the entire show, especially the 1953 film adaptation, as Fred/Petrucio attempts to stay in character and in the moment of wooing/taming Lilli/Katherine while she breaks her on-stage character, becoming more defiant that ever. Since its debut performance and through the years, this scene traditionally ends with Petrucio taking Katherine over his knee and smacking her backside as if to punish her for her defiance. It helps to keep in mind the time in which Porter’s work is set and first appeared on stage, Kiss Me, Kate having debuted on Broadway in 1948. The film adaptation premiering in 1953, by which time, millions of TV viewers were tuning in week after week to see Ricky Ricardo attempt to tame his scheming wife, Lucy, often resorting to turning her over his knee and giving her a spanking. To Tarlton’s credit, the infamous Kiss Me, Kate spanking scene between strong-willed Katherine and Petrucio is played off-stage, adding doubt as to exactly who is on the receiving end of the taming.
The first act draws to a close with the title tune, another all-in as Katherine resists both the urge to continue fighting, as well as the urge to sit, thanks to the off-stage reprimand she just received. Never intended to be taken too seriously, an certainly not to promote or glorify domestic discourse, the couple eventually, albeit still unwillingly embrace at Act’s end.
Tarlton’s choreo skills, and the dance talents of his ensemble start off Act 2 with the appropriately titled Too Darn Hot, another of my favorite Porter tunes, it’s also another prime example of Tarlton knowing exactly how to utilize and maximize the space and those who inhabit it. Reed, Mundy, Christen Hellman and other members of the company definitely bring the heat to this seductively sassy number.
Back to the Shrew musical, Petrucio laments the coming loss of his bachelor life with Where is the Life That Late I Led? This scene seems to also indicate that Fred is mourning the loss of his life with Lilli as offstage, Lilli’s much talked about, but heretofore unseen finance, Harrison Howell (James Rudolph) shows up looking for Lilli and ready to take her to be his wife.
Mundy’s Lois goes from the heat of Too Darn Hot to the flirtatious cool-down of Always True to You in My Fashion as she attempts to explain away her burgeoning friendship with Fred to a rightly jealous Bill.
The Porter hits keep coming as Wilkinson and Rudolph duet on the torchy testament From This Moment On. Then Pless gets his moment leading the ensemble in Bianca, a lovelorn ballad extolling his love for her, in spite of his reservations…and yes, it includes the lyrics “I’d gladly give up coffee for Sanka, even Sanka, Bianca for you”. Again, in Cole Porter’s world, anything can rhyme if you try hard enough. The number features more fabulous Tarlton choreography, fabulously performed by Pless and company.
Of course lyrics aren’t the only element of these tunes that make them decidedly Cole Porter….just as proficient in composition as he was in word-play, the melodies of Porter’s songs are a force unto themselves. In the masterfully capable hands of music director Rollie Mains, who is also on-hand playing keys, alongside Randy Craft, with Dan Kozlowski on drums, Michael Meadows on bass and Raymond Ridley on woodwinds, the music accompaniment in Kiss Me, Kate is heavenly.
Speaking of company members, Austin Olive and Sawyer Wallace, who play the aforementioned heavies who’ve come to collect Bill’s gambling debt, prove their comedic acumen through the play. Whether doing their toothpick-chewing, pistol waving stereotypical best as mobsters, or when forced to become part of the Shrew cast in order to keep an eye on their target, they’re hilarious. Never more so that near the end of the show as they perform the seemingly never-ending Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Of course all’s well that ends well…well, in a Cole Porter adaptation of Shakespeare, at any rate, and by show’s end Fred does indeed get that kiss.
Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre’s presentation of Kiss Me, Kate continues with performances through March 9. Thursday matinees are at 12 noon (seating and box lunch service begins at 11a.m. Thursday-Saturday evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 5:30 with optional dinner service until 7 p.m.) During the run of the show, there are also special performances at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 24 (doors at 12 noon, meal until 1:30), Tuesday night, February 26 (following the regular nightly schedule) and at noon on Wednesday, February 27 (same times as Thursday matinees). Tickets for Thursday matinee performances are $19 for show only, or $27.50 for show and a box lunch option. Evening performances are $13 for Children 12 and under, $20 for Students and $35 for Adults. For an additional, but minimal fee, during evening performances, Chaffin’s now offers a select a la carte menu of small plate items as well as entrée, sides, dessert and drink options. CLICK HERE to purchase tickets, or for more information.
On Thursday, February 14, Chaffin’s is offering a Valentine’s Special that will include the show, dinner for two, a bottle of champaign, a rose for the ladies and chances to win prizes all for $150 per couple ($185 if you’d like to be seated at a private table for two). CLICK HERE to purchase Valentine’s Day tickets.
On March 7, the noon matinee will be presented accompanied by signing for the deaf and hearing impaired. CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to this special performance.
As mentioned above, be sure and check back for my upcoming Rapid Fire 20 Q with members of the cast of Chaffin’s Kiss Me, Kate. In the meantime, keep up with the latest from Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre, find them online at ChaffinsBarnTheatre.com, ’like’ them on Facebook and follow them on Instagram and Twitter.