Cole Porter poured every ounce of wit, snark and alliterative ability he possessed into his lyrics for the 1948 musical comedy Kiss Me, Kate; as one of the premiere composers of the mid 20th century, he also painted the show with a rainbow of sublime melodies, from the rhapsodic and romantic to big and bouncy. The magic of the show is the way in which all these elements blend seamlessly together.
St. Petersburg Opera Company opens a run of Kiss Me, Kate Saturday (Feb. 2) at the Palladium Theater, with a hand-picked cast of singers, actors and dancers from New York and Tampa Bay. “People are going to be massively entertained by this production,” says stage director and choreographer Daryl Gray.
Adds musical director Mark Sforzini: “This cast is absolutely amazing, and it has been a joy to watch them embrace and become these characters.”
Kiss Me, Kate is an inside-out, inverted and modernized take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (that’s why it’s being included as part of the city’s inaugural Celebration of the Arts, which you can read more about here).
The book – written with great panache and humor by Samuel and Bella Spewack – introduces us to a traveling theater group, putting on a musical version of said Shakespeare comedy. It’s being directed by the egomaniacal Fred Graham, who’s also playing the leading man, Petruchio.
Katherine, the object of Petruchio’s desire (the titular Kate), is to be played by Lili Vanessi, a hot-tempered actress who happens to be Graham’s ex-wife. They are not exactly on the best of terms.
So it’s a show within a show, within another show. The other characters, including the all-singing, all-dancing ensemble, weave in and out of each storyline. Porter’s score includes “Too Darn Hot,” “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” “So In Love,” “Always True to You in My Fashion” and that comic masterpiece “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
Sforzini, St. Pete Opera’s executive and artistic director, will conduct a full orchestra for Kiss Me, Kate. He explains that musical theater – the really good, classic stuff – is directly connected to grand opera, which his company produces with regularity the rest of each season.
“Cole Porter writes like many great classical composers,” Sforzini says. “There’s a classical balance, and a classical construction to the music that makes it timeless. All the operettas by Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar, they’re like music theater pieces. They’re musical numbers that have dialogue scenes in between.
“Back in the day when opera was first developing, instead of speaking the lines between the scenes they sort of sung-spoke the lines, while an instrument like the harpsichord would play a very light musical accompaniment. They were free to sing these lines in the rhythm of speech, but they weren’t just spoken.
“Whereas, when you get to operetta, they cut that out and just went to straight dialogue between the musical numbers. Operetta led to Gilbert and Sullivan, and that helped lead into musical theater and American Broadway.”
As musical director for Kiss Me, Kate, Sforzini has been in intense rehearsal with the lead performers – most of whom have professional backgrounds in both opera and musical theater – and with the ensemble.
“Seeing the dancers work, and seeing Daryl work with them as the choreographer, you can see that the same things are expected of them, in terms of ensemble, that are expected of the singers and the instrumental players,” he explains. “It’s interesting, the parallels between great music and great dance.”
Gray, who was a dancer in Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ and other shows on Broadway, thinks of the choreography in this production to be a language, like the music and the dialogue, that needs to be understood and spoken correctly.
“The music dictates what period you’re in, and what kind of style you’re using,” he says. “And this particular show has one of the widest – if not the widest – range of types of music under the same tent, so to speak. You’ve got madrigals mixed with swing mixed with charlestons, beguine and tango, and foxtrot and so forth, there’s just a tremendous amount of music, and so there’s a tremendous amount of dance.
“This show is set in 1948. So I went back to that period of jazz dance, that period of social dance, and in terms of the Shrew side of it, I went back to the 16th and 17th century, the forms of dance that people did in Shakespearean times, and integrated some of that.”
Gray, who’s directed more than 40 musicals, explains that there’s a distinct advantage to carrying the twin titles of director and choreographer.
“Director/choreographers, all of us were dancers at one time, without exception,” he says. “And choreographers are used to moving people about the stage, whether it’s dancing, or walking or whatever.
“If you’re a choreographer you can become a director – it’s possible – but it’s very hard for a director to become a choreographer because it’s such a different skill set.”
For tickets and more information, click here.