One of the troubles with revivals is that they're so often just that—a group of technicians trying to shock a heartbeat back into something ready for the ground. Director Robert Cohen's exhumation of Kiss Me, Kate—UCI's giddy revival of Cole Porter and Samuel and Bella Spewack's 1948 musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew—is different: it has a pulse.
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As the first moments of musical director Daniel Gary Busby's ebullient orchestration float from the pit and a bank of lights casts its glow onto the stage, you can just feel a new musical classic beginning. Technicians climb ladders, costume designers unfurl material, divas take center stage and the director/writer/star swaggers about with a blond starlet on his arm, as actors and actresses dance joyfully to Donald McKayle's high-energy choreography.
Cohen has cast well too; Jason Vande Brake and Caitlin McGinty, both in stunning Broadway-caliber voice, play the leads: a formerly married couple—now bitterly divorced—in the play-within-a-play. As the angry couple manipulate, tease and assault each other on (and off) the stage, Vande Brake and McGinty deliver Shakespeare and slapstick with punch and verve. But the real find for me was Lauren Gira's hilarious starlet; her sexy/dumb reading of just about everything she does, from "Tom, Dick, or Harry" to "Always True to You in My Fashion," brought down the house. Lastly, there's Omar Ricks and Adrian Alita's memorable punning in "Brush Up Your Shakespeare"—who would have thought cheap, dirty jokes about Measure for Measure and Coriolanus could be so much fun?
As great as the music is—and it was good enough to send me to Amazon to pick up a copy of the soundtrack—the piecemeal script is a completely different matter. While somewhat revolutionary (for the 1940s) in presenting female characters with sex lives as complex as their male counterparts', too many plot points are dropped before being finished, some of the characters' motivations are inexplicable, and there's just too much of Shakespeare's archaic sexual politics on display for the piece to really work today. Watching a man put a woman over his knee and spank her may appeal to fetishists or purists, but in this day and age, that retrograde wrong-headedness is a bitter dose of vinegar in the otherwise tasty meal Cohen and Co. have served up for us.
KISS ME, KATE AT CLAIRE TREVOR THEATRE, UC IRVINE, 300 ARTS, IRVINE, (949) 824-2787. THURS.-FRI., MARCH 16-17, 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M. $12-$27.