By David Steinberg
Cole Porter was an unbeatable one-man composing team. He teamed up with himself to write lyrics and music. His twin talent was no more audible than in the dated 1948 musical “Kiss Me, Kate.” Albuquerque’s Landmark Musicals is presenting a high-spirited, uneven production of the musical March 17-19 and March 24-26 at UNM’s Rodey Theatre.
It’s a challenging property, especially for the leads. It demands that each must act, sing, and sometimes dance or move inside two characters. That’s because this is a double-barreled show. Through one barrel, the audience views a performance of Shakespeare’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” including some of the Bard’s text. Through the other barrel the audience looks at the backstage romances and friendships of the cast. The show is set in Baltimore, a steppingstone for a hoped-for Broadway run.
That means Amy Poland, the primary female lead, is the shrewish man-hater Katherine in the Shakespearean comedy and the leading lady Lilli Vanessi backstage. She brilliantly performs opposite Erick Seelinger(cq), who is Petruchio, Katherine’s mean, money hungry suitor in the Bard’s play. Mean because we see Petruchio torture her into painful subservience by depriving her of sleep, food and comfort. T’aint funny. Money hungry when we hear him sing “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua.” Backstage, Seelinger portrays Fred Graham, the egotistical leading man, the producer and director of the musical; and he’s Lilli’s skirt-chasing ex-husband.
The secondary couple must also double up. Courtney Giannini is Bianca, Katherine’s winsome kid sister; Bianca wants to marry but can’t until, and if, Katherine does. They do. Backstage, Giannini plays sexy, man-crazy Lois Lane. Opposite her is (husband in real life) Louis Giannini. In the play, he is Lucentio, the favored suitor of sweet Bianca. Giannini’s other character is phlegmatic Bill Calhoun, a suitor of Lois and a gambler who doesn’t know when to quit. He signs an IOU forging Graham’s name.
As actors and singers, Poland and Courtney Giannini are great; Poland captivates in singing “So in Love” as Giannini does coquettishly in “Always True to You in My Fashion.” Seelinger and Louis Giannini are OK actors/singers. which is a main reason why the show is uneven; their women outshine them. As dance partners, the Gianninis are terrific. They’re backed by a strong dance ensemble. The Gianninis are the show’s choreographers.
The dancer who most impressed was Hasani Olujimi, in the role of Paul, a dresser. He opens Act II as the lead whirling dancer in the number “Too Darn Hot.” Athletic and lithe, he was backed by torrid trumpet-playing in the Darby Fegan-led pit orchestra. Another scene stealer was energetic, flexible dancer-singer Wendy Leverenz Barker who as Hattie led the cast with the big introductory song-and-dance number “Another Op’nin,’ Another Show.”
A pair of clunky Runyonesque thugs – First Man and Second Man – who come to collect Calhoun’s gambling debt … from Graham. They provide some of the production’s excessive physical comedy. Too much falling down, falling over. Enough already. But First Man (Gary Bearly) and Second Man (Jack Litherland) are paired in a cute vaudeville-style duet. They charmingly hoof it and sing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” through its multiple verses. Lilli’s other suitor is Gen. Harrison Howell played with cartoonish stiffness by Warren Asa Wilgus.
“Kiss Me, Kate” continues March 17-19 and March 24-26 at Rodey Theatre, which is in UNM’s Center for the Arts. Tickets are $22, $24 and $26 for the general public with $2 discounts for students and seniors. Tickets are available by calling 925-5858, by visiting www.unmtickets.com, at ticket offices at the UNM Bookstore, the Pit and the Center for the Arts box office and at area Albertsons.