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Stage Review

The teaming of the shrewd

Porter and performers carry Lyric Stage’s ‘Kiss Me, Kate’

Peter Davenport and Amelia Broome star as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Katherine in Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate.’’ Peter Davenport and Amelia Broome star as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Katherine in Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate.’’ (Mark S. Howard)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 10, 2009

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By the late 1940s, Cole Porter was ensconced in Hollywood, dashing off the occasional movie score while remaining far from Broadway, where he’d recently been burned by a couple of flops.

So Porter was dubious when playwright Bella Spewack asked that he write the songs for a new musical comedy to be called “Kiss Me, Kate.’’ He eventually consented only after strenuous coaxing by Spewack. Let’s see a show of hands: How many agree that several generations of theatergoers (and countless music lovers) are in her debt?

I’m not saying life wouldn’t be worth living without “Too Darn Hot,’’ “Why Can’t You Behave?’’ “So in Love,’’ and “Always True to You (in My Fashion),’’ but it sure would be missing a certain flavor.

Spiro Veloudos seems to understand this. For all the knockabout antics in his rollicking new production of “Kiss Me, Kate’’ at the Lyric Stage Company, and there are plenty, Veloudos is always true to Porter in his fashion.

He makes sure we can hear every subtle double-entendre in Porter’s lyrics, every roundabout rhyme and silky rejoinder. This is no small thing, because for Porter, wit was practically an aesthetic principle. (That he was able to deploy that wit in the service of his own matchless melodies was not just the icing on the cake, it was another cake entirely).

But this “Kate,’’ powered by two superb performances in the leading roles and an endlessly energetic young ensemble, manages to generate a freehearted brio all its own. The production is charming enough that it almost, though not entirely, manages to overcome the problematic sexual politics at the heart of “Kate.’’ (More on that later.)

To be sure, at two hours and 45 minutes, including intermission, “Kiss Me, Kate’’ sometimes feels like too much of a good thing. “It’s a ’40s musical,’’ Veloudos warned the audience beforehand. And if I never hear “Wunderbar’’ again, it will be too soon. (Yes, I know Porter intended “Wunderbar’’ as a spoof of Viennese waltzes, but still.)

Yet Veloudos and choreographer Ilyse Robbins keep the stage alive with color and movement from the opening number (“Another Op’nin’, Another Show’’) to the finale, helping us overlook the fact that the plot of “Kate’’ is wafer-thin:

Fred Graham (Peter Davenport) is directing and starring in an out-of-town tryout of a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew’’ while feuding backstage with his ex-wife and costar, Lilli Vanessi (Amelia Broome). There’s clearly still a spark of romance smoldering between these dueling hams - not that this prevents Fred from casting a lascivious eye at Lois Lane (Michele DeLuca), a blond bombshell who plays Bianca in the company’s version of “Shrew.’’ When Lilli receives flowers from Fred that were meant for Lois, complete with an amorous note, complications ensue.

Now, about “Shrew’’: Few present-day spectators will rejoice at the “taming’’ of a strong-willed woman, particularly when it is achieved by the administration of a spanking. Presumably in recognition of this, Veloudos has chosen to stage Petruchio’s spanking of Katherine behind a curtain (and Katherine does get a few licks in when she battles with Petruchio). Nonetheless, there are some queasy moments for a contemporary audience.

Whether trading Bardic barbs or singing Porter’s tunes, Broome and Davenport are simply terrific. As Lilli/Katherine, Broome is a combustible but somehow vulnerable diva; when she alternately soars and screeches through “I Hate Men,’’ it’s not hard to see why. The preening self-delight of Davenport’s Fred/Petruchio is a treat to watch, and he brings a strong, supple voice to his lament for lost bachelorhood in “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?’’

DeLuca’s portrayal of Lois/Bianca, a Broadway baby if ever there was one, has comic fizz and sensual sizzle. As Paul, Fred’s dresser, Kennedy Pugh delivers a version of “Too Darn Hot’’ with the ensemble that practically melts the stage. Timothy John Smith, who plays General Harrison Howell, Lilli’s fiance and a figure of MacArthur-like grandiosity, brings the house down in a hilarious duet with Broome on “From This Moment On.’’ The presence of a pair of gangsters (played by Neil A. Casey and J.T. Turner) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense plot-wise, but I was glad they were there, especially when Casey and Turner warbled “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.’’

The Lyric production affords you a splendid opportunity to brush up your Porter. Just remember to cast a grateful glance in the general direction of Bella Spewack’s shade while you’re doing it.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

KISS ME, KATE

Musical with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack.

Directed by: Spiro Veloudos. Musical direction, Jonathan Goldberg. Choreography, Ilyse Robbins. Set, Janie E. Howland. Costumes, Rafael Jean.

At: Lyric Stage Company, through Oct. 10. Tickets: $29-$54. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com.

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