Sunday, May 20, 2018

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra mounts a semi-staged production of "Kiss Me, Kate" to end season

The sparkle of late-period Cole Porter glitters throughout "Kiss Me, Kate," the 1949 musical comedy being presented by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra to end its 2017-18 season. Dimmed though his output was by the enduring pain of a horseriding injury as well as by shifting cultural tastes, Porter sustains his wit and typically sly erotic charge in this mash-up of a romantically challenged star couple's spats and Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew."

The show opened Saturday and concludes with a matinee today.  The stage of the Schrott Fine Arts Center at Butler University is occupied for the most part by the ICO, conducted by Matthew Kraemer, nearing the end of three years as its music director. In front of the ensemble, the action takes place in a vigorously realized form as directed by James Brennan.

The set-up ensures that the spirit and foundation of Porter's music is firmly established, and yet the face-miked singers are not overwhelmed by the accompaniment. At times the amplification was too robust, but on the whole the songs came out well-balanced. The need for one of the two Gangsters to keep adjusting his device detracted somewhat from their second-act duet, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," however.

Petruchio tames two shrews at once: Kate and Lilli.
The production's success depends, as it should, upon the energy and charisma emanating from the two principals. That was more than abundant Saturday night. Hometown boy Ben Davis, having gone on from here to assemble a wide-ranging resume in musical theater, shone as the vain star Fred Graham. The rakish matinee idol accidentally ramps up the Shakespeare play's classic Petruchio-vs.-Katherine battle of the sexes after misleading  his co-star, Lilli Vanessi, into thinking he was after a post-divorce reconciliation. Lilli's rediscovery of his waywardness lends authentic hostility to her portrayal of Shakespeare's shrew. The prima donna's on- and offstage persona melded across a delectable spectrum in Michele Ragusa's performance. The physical scrapping between them had an almost alarming realism.

The show's secondary love interest, and a device for filling out the plot with a threatening underworld debt attributed to Graham, was represented by Vandi Enzor's portrayal of the flirtatious Lois and Matt Branic as the comprimario Bill, who can't bear to take responsibility for his gambling habit. Enzor captured Lois' calculating side in two of the show's more seductive solos — "Why Can't You Behave?" and "Always True to You in My Fashion" — but in dialogue she came across as too much of an airhead to make the characterization consistent. Branic displayed a splendid lyric tenor in the tossed-off ode to the character Lois plays, "Bianca," backed by women of the chorus, able singers who were not up to the song's required whistling. (Does anyone whistle anymore?)

Ben Davis holds aloft one of Petruchio's little black books ("Where Is the Life that Late I Led").
Brennan managed the choral numbers about as well as could be expected, given that the singers are forced to make circuitous entrances and exits and must often be arranged in lines that keep them from looking natural.   There were some triumphs, however: Petruchio's solo with the men, "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua," was well-designed. Just before that, and on a smaller scale, Katherine's
Bianca unleashes a charm offensive.
solo with her suitors, "Tom, Dick or Harry," also moved adroitly. And, led with distinction by Keith Potts, the male complaint about the wilting of desire, "Too Darn Hot," was something even today's air-conditioned libidos might well identify with. Near the end, the guys withdraw from moving in on the gals.

Giving variety to the lengthy solos, so that all their charm doesn't rest upon Porter's endless inventiveness as a lyricist, is a challenge in this genre. It was met by the inspired staging, and its whole-hearted execution, in Katherine's "I Hate Men," Petruchio's "Where Is the Life that Late I Led?" (both with the cameo involvement of the maestro), and Lois's "Always True to You in my Fashion."

Dance mastery took a while to jell in the first-act ensemble "We Open in Venice," and choral projection of Porter's intricate lyrics lacked the requisite crystal clarity. After the ICO's sparkling account of the overture, the solo start of "Another Op'nin', Another Show" betrayed some nerves, quickly swept away by the choral entrance, fortunately.

The finales of both acts managed pretty well the illusion of spectacle and flourish, despite the need to be largely linear. Such sacrifices were understandable, given the advantage of having the orchestra so prominent in its own show. What was less understandable was for a large portion of the second act not to be "off book," when the non-singing role of General Harrison Howell (Adam O. Crowe) is introduced at a point where the plot twist involving him has to feel natural. Holding scripts and turning pages works against that. Happily, elsewhere in the performance, there was plenty of naturalness to make up for this slippage from professionalism.

[Photos by Rich Clark]