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“Kiss Me Kate” at Pasadena Playhouse: an old friend, a new spin

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in “Kiss Me Kate” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Earl Gibson III]

The story of “Kiss Me Kate” has always been worthy of note. The first winner of a Tony for Best Musical, it was the surprise come-back victory for Cole Porter, and his most successful creation in a lifetime of writing songs for the theater. Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, and inspired by famed 1930s productions adapting familiar shows to an African American cast, director Sheldon Epps has taken this backstage musical in a similar direction.

For the most part, this offers up a freshness, making a wittily familiar favorite something one can see through a new lens. Still, there is some unevenness to tighten up before it has all of the impact one could wish.

The essential story looks at a theater company about to start their out-of-town try-out of a new musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The director, producer and star is a famed and rather pompous actor named Fred who has recruited the equally famous wife he divorced a year before to play Katherine, the female lead. Thus the edgy relationship between their characters onstage is reflected in an equal edginess offstage, with comic results. Meanwhile the secondary female, playing Bianca, hangs all over Fred while stringing along her longtime partner, whose gambling habit is about to get everyone in trouble.

Beginning with the blues/gospel styling of the iconic “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” the audience knows this production is going to be challenging its expectations. Jenelle Lynn Randall, as the leading lady’s dresser, grabs attention from the very first note. Merle Dandridge, as the obstinate Katherine, lives up to the romantic yet commanding part of the spurned lover ready for change, and sings the great “So In Love” from deep in her soul.

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer  [Photo: Earl Gibson III]

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer [Photo: Earl Gibson III]


Joanna A. Jones makes a deliciously wicked Bianca, delighted in her own sexuality, while, as her partner, Terrance Spencer’s gee-whiz charm and muscular dancing make that couple’s moments on stage among the most entertaining. Also impressive as a dancer is Rogelio Douglas, Jr., whose “Too Darned Hot” with Randall provides the steamiest moment. Indeed, the entire company – ensemble most definitely included – puts their whole heart and soul into this undertaking with attractive results.

A special nod goes to John Iacovelli for a set which evokes period without becoming boxy, and to David K. Mickelsen for the colorful costumes which evoke the quasi-period feel and the color of old style Broadway musicals. These two help to keep the show in its own era: as a self-styled “American Negro Theater” production in the 1940s.

There are a couple of issues, however. The much-touted star, Wayne Brady, makes that central figure of the producer/actor/director extremely human, but almost too human, too sensitive. The character needs to be, at least when “on,” more of a figure of ego, capturing the stage with an almost larger-than-life quality. That would make his more human, more fragile private moments stand out. Here it all blends, which dilutes the energy of the piece – a situation not aided by a singing voice occasionally on the edge of flatness.

Also, though Jeffrey Polk’s choreography is lively and sometimes impressively athletic, its overt sexuality sometimes seems out of keeping with the time period portrayed. As example, why would an actress’ dresser strip down, mid-show, on opening night, in an alley?

Still, it is fun to see “Kiss Me Kate” again, and fascinating to see how small shifts here and there create a new underlying theme to the piece. And, of course, one more chance to hear that silly song, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is never amiss. Also, the opening of this production signals the unveiling of the new carpet and especially the new seats in the theater. That in itself is worthy of celebration.

What: “Kiss Me Kate” When: Through October 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $57 – $145 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Sweet Nostalgia: Candlelight Pavilion’s “Anything Goes” offers vintage charm

James McGrath as Billy Crocker, and Stacy Huntington as Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” at The Candlelight Pavilion (photo: Isaac James Creative)


The American musical has evolved over time. No long do you find, except as a send-up of a former age, the kind of fluffy shows common in the 20s and 30s, when George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter created so much of the Great American Songbook. Attempts to look back at that era often become self-conscious or satiric. It’s nice when someone just returns for a loving look.

This is the case at the Candlelight Pavilion, where Porter’s classic “Anything Goes” gets a charming rendition, played in time period – for laughs, rather than to be laughed at. The singing is good. The dancing is appropriate. The characters, though broadly drawn, are tuned just right. The net result is a lighthearted, nostalgic evening of sheer entertainment.

The story is one typical of the era. Mistaken identity and sensual attraction rule the day. A wealthy and rather lascivious banker crosses the Atlantic on a great liner, along with a famed evangelist turned nightclub singer and her chorines, a minor gangster pretending to be a missionary, his moll, and a young American with her British fiancé, her mother, and the old beau who stowed away to break them up. Various parings and re-pairings ensue.

R.C. Sands and Chelsea Baldree provide the comic relief

Stacy Huntington makes energetic and believable work of Reno Sweeney, the songstress, giving those classic songs a fresh spin. The other standouts include R.C. Sands, genuinely funny as the marginally famous gangster, and Nick Tubbs, who makes the Brit truly likable, rather than just silly-pompous. For once you can actually understand why Reno falls for him in the end. Also good is Chelsea Baldree as the gangster’s gal with a heart of gold, and James McGrath, who gets to sing a lot of the best duets as the stowaway young stock broker.

Rachel Davis makes a lovely ingenue, and sings most sweetly. John Lynd gives the banker the necessary combination of myopia and lustful thinking. Toni Lynd makes the intrusive mother a cross between a pushy stage mother and an upper crust church lady. The chorus sings and dances, tap included, with great style (and perhaps a little recorded enhancement), giving energy to the “Heaven Hop” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” – the show’s two showstoppers.

John Vaughan, as always has done a lot with a small space, giving the impression of large chorus numbers with a minimal cast. Timing is key here, as the script borders on farce, and Vaughan keeps things sharp, allowing the piece to flow quickly and charmingly across the evening. The set, a standard one, is used well, and most of the costumes fit well both the people in them and the time period.

In short, this “Anything Goes” honors well that vibrant and silly genre so surprisingly well suited to Candlelight Pavilion’s intimate setting. The meal is pretty good too, right down the intermission desserts. In this time of political and social jangling, sometimes it’s nice to look back to when “entertainment” meant parking your brain for an hour or two, and humming along to great tunes.

What: “Anything Goes” When: Through November 18, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: The Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: meal-inclusive, $48 – $68 general/ $25 – $30 children under 12 (appetizers, desserts, beverages and gratuity extra) Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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