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Strange, Dear, But True, Dear

Kiss Me, Kate Book by Samuel and Bella Spewack Music and lyrics by Cole Porter Directed by Holly T. Sargent At Kirkland House Nov. 9-11

By David Frankel

COLE PORTER, the famed ivory-tickler, chain-smoker and song-writer, was born in Peru, Indiana, in 1891 and--ever the New York jet set's suave darling--died in 1964. His portfolio of hit Broadway musicals includes Gay Divorce, Anything Goes, and DuBarry Was a Lady. He materialized recently at the opening night of the Kirkland House production of Kiss Me, Kate. A reporter quizzed him on his views of the performance. . . .

So, what'd you think?

Keep in mind that, as the composer and lyricist of Kiss Me, Kate, I have certain conceptions--you might say standards--of how the show should be staged. Before tonight. I saw the show performed only by Broadway professionals, and I believe it entirely unfair to compare these kids here at Kirkland House with, say, the original cast.

Is it worth staging a production that can't match professional standards?

That's your Harvard Crimson arrogance shining through. My point is that musical comedy has a place at Harvard, that musical comedy has a place at Harvard, that life is not all coffee-houses and football games.

Considering the production circumstances and time limitations they had, I don't think these kids ruined the show. I prefer to encourage productions of my work and not to dwell on the weaknesses.

So let's not talk about standards. Perhaps I used the wrong word before. How can you talk about Kiss Me, Kate and apply standards? Look, you have a simple story about a director, Fred Graham, and his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi who are putting on a performance of The Taming of the Shrew. You see their backstage shenanigans as well as their performances in the play. We threw in a couple of gangsters because they're always funny. But that's not a quality story by any means. With my music and some dancing, however, it works very well on stage.

What about the dancing in this performance?

It wasn't great.

What else was wrong with the Kirkland production?

You're asking what's wrong. I'd prefer to tell you what I enjoyed about this evening. It's always a pleasure to see one's work performed by enthusiastic actors with a great deal of energy. I thought the young woman who played Lilli (Belle Linda Halpern) showed real promise on the musical stage. Her voice has remarkable range and color, though she use, too much vibrato. Her dramatic timing was also excellent. The same goes for the actor who played Baptista, Katherine's father (Eric Mendelman).

Of course, the gangster (Travis Epps and Paul Rosta) couldn't miss. As long as they get the Brooklyn accents down right, the audience will laugh every time they move a muscle on stage. I'd say their rendition of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" was the highlight of the show, particular the encore in roller skates.

I said before the dancing wasn't great, but under the circumstances, I wouldn't blame the choreographer (Susan Doskooil) I think she did a marvelous Job.

What cricumstances?

She was working on a stage smaller than a subway platform. I think it took skill to keep most of the dance numbers from becoming goose-stepping parades. And remember, she was working with non-dancers.

But to be honest, I'd have to say that the director (Holly Sargent) miscast many of the roles.

Could you be more specific?

For instance, I don't think Fred Graham/Petruchio (Jim Goldstein) was done well at all. His voice rumbled flatly and his erratic comic timing bothered me. But even more important, he failed to understand Fred's soft side and explore Fred's love for Lilli. This one-dimensional portrayal of the lead, I think, weakened the show.

THE SUPPORTING couple, Lois (Mary Fedor) and Bill (John Stimpson) were thoroughly miscast. Though she looks, appropriately, like an ex-nightclubber, she couldn't sing more than four notes on key. Him, well, he belongs on a junior varsity high school basketball team doing lay-ups instead of prancing around in tights.

Isn't that a little harsh?

Yes. Thank you for stopping me, or I would have criticized the musical director (David Margolin) also.

It's your music.

I think he did a fine job with a tiny orchestra. But he inexplicably cut portions of the score--the prelude to "Wunderbar," for example--and slowed the tempo on several numbers to a despicable crawl. "Another Openin'. Another Show" sounded like a dirge.

You're beginning to sound very negative.

I'll trust you to edit this properly. I still have a few more things to say. Very often, a chorus will save a show. A blend of voices can usually hide the missed notes. Strangely enough, this chorus fails to add much vitality to the show. Chorus numbers dragged, and I laughed at the group tap dance number.

Any last words?

It was an admirable attempt.

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