The "Kiss Me Kate" that opened at Wolf Trap last night is a sensationally pretty production, easy on the eyes and, most of the time, the ears.
When the backstage tale of actor Fred Graham and his costar - ex-wife Lilli Vanessi, dissolves into Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" midway through the first act, the stage is suddenly filled with a dazzling color chart of pennants, wagons, tapes and tents that fill the huge stage, and, what's more, seem to inspire the whole company to shift into a higher gear. Set designer Paul Steinberg and Costume designer Dona Granata really go to town and take everybody else along for the ride.
If these magnificent sets and costumes were manufactured for a one-week run, as the playbill suggests, it's as if an air force were, built for a Saturday-afternoon air show.
The production has been assembled around the singing voices of its stars, Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart, and they are voices worth assembling a production around. Although Stewart managed to forget a few of his lyrics last night - shuffling passages around in the worst possible place, the wonderfully intricate "The Life That Late I Led" - he was otherwise absolutely, robustly bright in both his roles, as "Kiss Me Kate's" Fred Graham and as "The Taming of the Shrew's" Petruchio.
As Kate, Lear's tempests are rather on the dainty side - somebody seems to have tamed her a bit before Petruchio got around to the task. But her strong soprano voice is a pleasure, especially in this age when an inability to sing has become an apparent prerequisite for being cast in a musical. She and Stewart, a husband and wife playing a husband and wife playing a husband and wife, make some terrific music together with "Wunderbar" and "So In Love."
A musical at Wolf Trap is an odd experience. The night air can be invaded by objects (for example, moths) and activities (for example, picture-taking) not customarily encountered in a theater. And the open-air acoustics, although adroitly and inconspicuously amplified, occasionally reduce the performance to something like a hummingbird giving a recital in the middle of Grand Canyon.
This is especially the case when Suzanne Dawson as Bianca tackles her first few numbers. But Dawson is broad and funny in the non-singing phases of her role, and when she gets around to "Always True To You In My Fashion," her second-act show-stopper, something - perhaps the higher register or just the momentum of the performance - makes her suddenly become louder, surer and altogether winning.
Legend has it that when Samuel and Bella Spewack, authors of the book, approached Cole Porter with their notion of a musical based (after a fashion) on Shakespeare, the idea gave him the jitters. If so, he had clearly become fearless by the time he wrote "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," in which two debt-collecting hoods quote the bard with abandon.
"Brush Up Your Shakespeare" is as solid and hysterical as ever. True, the encores at Wolf Trap have a certain premeditated quality - the two hoods leave the stage, while the spotlight remains, urging the audience to woo them back. And true also Ben Kapen and Robert Weil had utterly forgotten the words to their final encore last night.But they are a marvelous Mutt-and-Jeff team as the hoods, their comedy penetrated right up the Wolf Trap hillside. To the funnybones of even the farthest patrons with their picnic baskets and champagne glasses.
From start to finish, in fact, Shakespeare is better served than the Spewacks, whose sharp-tongued but old fashioned musical comedy dialogue is often rather limply rendered.
Although nothing is definite, says Wolf Trap, this "Kiss Me Kate" means to go on an extended tour. If it falls through, the company might consider doing "The Taming of the Shrew" instead. CAPTION: Picture, Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear in "Kiss Me Kate"