OFAM hits up Porter, Rodgers and Hart
by Suzi Steffen
|Another farcical moment in The Boys from Syracuse|
|Bill Calhoun (Ben Goodman) and Lois Lane (Ecaterina) dream of a better future in Kiss Me, Kate. Photos courtesy of the shedd.|
I’m an earworm magnet, but even by my standards, Kiss Me, Kate’s a humdinger.
For a few days, it was “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” (sung handily at OFAM’s production by the excellent recent UO grad Kathleen Leary and the company), set to the rhythm of wheels on the river path. Then I had to hear “Wunderbar” — which should be banned somehow; after all, the very point of the song is how bad and conventional it was in the show during which Fred Graham (Bill Hulings) and Lilli Vanessi (Shirley Andress) met — over and over in my head. I think I even dreamt about it.
What else sticks? “So In Love,” which Andress sings sweetly and Hulings makes the emotional center of the show later on. When I’m walking, “We Open In Venice” pops in unbidden. When the cat brushes by my legs? “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” immediately comes to mind.
All this to say that Cole Porter was a genius (“I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua” — how would you rhyme that? “I heard you say, ‘Good God, man, what a cad you are’”? Porter did, to my delight), that Kate’s got some fine cast members and if you have any sense of joy, you’ll get yourself to the Hult Center for the final performance on Saturday, Aug. 6.
The story sets a musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew inside a 1940s Baltimore backstage drama. Does it make sense? That’s completely beside the point. Hulings and Andress, who seem basically to have invented the OFAM musical pairing, perform admirably in parts that require physical maulings and emotional challenges. Andress has to deal with the dual annoyance of playing Kate in Taming of the Shrew and playing the wounded/demanding Lilli. Hulings gets to lark it about in “Where Is the Life that Late I Led” and several scenes with gangster duo John L. Muellner and Ron Judd, who add that touch of mid-20th-century absurdity required in odd places, basically for costume and scene changes, in musicals like Kate.
Ecaterina plays Lois Lane/Bianca without the super-sleaze sometimes associated with that role. If Ben Goodman, whose ethereal beauty blazes in the Taming costumes, doesn’t prove a believable Bill Calhoun/Lucentio, the man certainly can dance anyone off the stage. The book, by Sam and Bella Spewack, can’t quite keep up with the madcap Porter lyrics — but then, what could? Also, when I first saw this as a kid, I somehow missed that “Too Darn Hot” basically discusses male, er, performance when it’s warm outside. Seriously: There’s a song about heat-induced erectile dysfunction. Win.
Unlike Kate, the Rodgers and Hart The Boys from Syracuse, OFAM’s other musical offering this summer, contains nothing earwormy. Combining one of Shakespeare’s most ridiculous plots (The Comedy of Errors) with what might charitably be called a less inspired offering from the famous duo, Boys contains gags that apparently brought the house down in 1938. The actors, singers and dancers spend plenty of effort, a lot of it quite fine, on this production, and I applaud the Shedd’s Jim and Ginevra Ralph for giving small, forgotten musicals a go on the small stage of the Jaqua Concert Hall. How did they fit the orchestra and the cleverly designed (by Jerry Hooker) set on that little stage? Impressive.
Also impressive is the energy of the actors, particularly the two Dromios (Conor O’Brien and Stephen Bennett) and Antipholus of Syracuse (Gregory Paul Mathans), not to mention the manic Luce (Madelyn Schwartz). If director Richard Jessup could tone down some of the Dromio slapstick — even a little bit! — the show might feel more consistent.
Somehow, Kathryn Leonard as Luciana manages to bring a moment of realism into the hyper-goofy plot as she discovers she’s fallen in love with someone she shouldn’t have, and Erica Jean beautifully sings and charmingly acts the difficult role of Adriana. Props to fight choreographer John Elliot for what had to be a near-impossible task, given the number of people onstage during the swordplay.
If you’ve got friends or family in the show; if you want to see what the actors do with this script; if you want to hear more Rodgers and Hart songs (I can say that “The Shortest Night of the Year’ is quite lovely, and “This Can’t Be Love” has a vaguely catchy pre-war snappiness), then hey, Boys seemed to make the people around me laugh a lot, and the Shedd’s a lovely space to hang out for a few hours.
But earworms be damned: If I had to choose, I’d choose Kate.
Kiss Me, Kate continues Aug. 4 & 6 at the Hult Center; The Boys from Syracuse continues Aug. 6 & 7 at the Shedd. Tix for Boys at OFAM.org or 541-434-7000; for Kate at hultcenter.org or 541-682-5000.