DENNIS — Part of the enduring appeal of “Kiss Me, Kate,’’ I think, has to do with a theatergoer’s suspicion that most of the really juicy stuff happens backstage.
A bigger part, of course, is Cole Porter’s antic and luscious score. Any musical that gets to showcase gems like “Too Darn Hot,’’ “Why Can’t You Behave?,’’ and “Always True to You in My Fashion’’ goes in with a serious head start.
Director Mark Martino makes the most of this advantage, abetted by choreographer Shea Sullivan and an energetic cast, in a sprightly, sultry, and thoroughly enjoyable Cape Playhouse production of “Kiss Me, Kate.’’
Between Porter’s cleverly insouciant lyrics and a wisecrack-laden book by Sam and Bella Spewack, “Kiss Me, Kate’’ is the musical equivalent of a flute of champagne. The key is to sustain the fizz, and that’s where Stephen Buntrock proves invaluable.
As Fred Graham, an impresario/actor whose rascality is exceeded only by his ego, Buntrock is an absolute treat. He flavors his performance with traces of John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, and P.T. Barnum. His Fred is a ham who cannot be cured — not that we’re rooting for any such outcome, given how entertainingly this bombastic man of the theater struts and frets his hour upon the stage.
Oops, wrong Shakespeare reference. It’s not “Macbeth’’ but “The Taming of the Shrew’’ that Fred has adapted into a musical that he’s decided to try out in Baltimore. He’s assigned himself the role of Petruchio, natch, and his costar, playing Kate, is Lilli Vanessi (Susan Powell), a temperamental movie actress who is also, not so incidentally, Fred’s ex-wife.
When Fred sends flowers and a romantic note to Lois (Andrea Chamberlain), a young actress in his company, and they end up being delivered by mistake to Lilli, the stage is set, so to speak, for fireworks. Lilli happily assumes that Fred is still in love with her (and she might not be wrong about that), but if she should read the note and see who it’s really meant for, perhaps, say, just before she’s to perform a key scene of “Shrew’’ with Fred . . .
Any production of “Kiss Me, Kate,’’ including this one, is marred by a troubling dimension: the fact that headstrong, independent Kate is eventually forced into a submissive posture, and is even taken over Petruchio’s knee and spanked. Before that happens at the Cape Playhouse, though, Powell’s Kate administers half a dozen solid slaps to the face of Buntrock’s Petruchio.
Martino keeps the convoluted pieces of this play-within-a-play flowing together smoothly. With brio and confidence, Buntrock nails the tongue-twisting demands of “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua’’ and “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?’’ As Lilli/Kate, Powell is exuberantly inventive in the comic scenes. She scowls and wields a broom as a potential weapon during “I Hate Men,’’ but also brings an openhearted vulnerability to “So in Love.’’ (The band was more audible than necessary during that song and a few other quiet tunes. The problem of nearly overpowered singers has been a persistent one at area musicals this year.)
Also an asset is Chamberlain, who brings a jaunty edge to “Always True to You in My Fashion’’ and a plaintive air to “Why Can’t You Behave?’’ She sings that number in a duet with Bill (Matt Loehr), Lois’s boyfriend, an actor with a gambling habit who signs Fred’s name to a $10,000 IOU.
Rheaume Crenshaw, Correy West, and the energetic ensemble get the show off to a rousing start with “Another Op’nin, Another Show.’’ Act 2 begins with a performance by West of “Too Darn Hot’’ that is paced too darn slow at first, but the number eventually picks up considerable steam, enabling the members of the ensemble to fully demonstrate their dancing skills.
Jim and Bob Walton are simply hilarious as a couple of striped-suited, fedora-wearing, gun-carrying gangsters who show up to collect that massive debt from Fred and — to their initial dismay and eventual delight — end up in the show. Indeed, the gangsters prove unwilling to leave the stage, repeatedly returning for one more verse of the pun-happy “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.’’ Like the musical of which it’s a part, the song amounts to a cockeyed love letter to the theater.