I suppose there’s a better way of spending a summer evening than sitting on the Esplanade watching Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra collaborate on “Kiss Me, Kate” at the DCR Hatch Shell, but right now I can’t think of one. The 1948 Cole Porter hit, which won the first Tony awarded for best musical, is packed with great songs, from “Wunderbar” and “So in Love” to “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and “Too Darn Hot.” What’s more, though the Esplanade show had been advertised as “semi-staged,” it was fully and engagingly acted, with costumes and choreography. It lacked only sets, and those were easily imagined.
And the performers made the play-within-a-play plot easy to follow. It’s opening night in Baltimore for “Kiss Me, Kate,” a musical based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and starring Fred Graham as Petruchio and his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, as Kate. Lilli’s planning to remarry, and Fred is romancing Lois Lane, who’s playing Bianca in the musical. Lois, however, already has a boyfriend, Bill Calhoun, who’s playing Lucentio in the musical. That’s only the beginning of Fred’s troubles: Bill has signed a $10,000 gambling IOU with Fred’s name, and the flowers, with incriminating card, that Fred had meant for Lois get delivered to Lilli instead.
It would have been easy to ignore all this flummery and just enjoy the tunes, but Broadway stars Marc Kudisch and Kerry O’Malley were an endearing Fred and Lilli; they waltzed enchantingly during “Wunderbar,” and when they sang “So in Love,” you could believe they were. Kudisch gave blowhard Fred real heart, but his best moments were comic: sashaying through a ridiculous cha-cha-cha during “Were Thine That Special Face,” getting up on a table and doing a split while singing “Where Is the Life That Late I Led.” O’Malley was sweet in “So in Love,” hitting her high “till I die” with power and ease, but then her snarling “I Hate Men” had Bianca’s suitors cowering behind conductor Christopher Wilkins.
McCaela Donovan was a seductive Lois in her pink sheath, devotedly earnest in “Why Can’t You Behave?,” slyly chaste in “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” then sexually frank in “Always True to You in My Fashion.” Bill’s big song, “Bianca,” is not one of Porter’s best; Andrew Burnap gave it some distinction with his dancing. Playing Fred’s dresser, Paul, Joe Aaron Reid offered a mellow, wistful “Too Darn Hot” that he punctuated with a pair of somersaults. As the gangsters who try to collect the $10,000 from Fred and find themselves on stage singing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” Fred Sullivan Jr. and Brian Richard Robinson were a nasal hoot, especially in their Jimmy Durante interpretation.
Kudos to Commonwealth Shakespeare artistic director Steven Maler and Boston Landmarks Orchestra music director Wilkins for putting this together. It hardly mattered that for some sections the actors were on book — Kudisch even used his script to paddle O’Malley when Kate starts whacking Petruchio on stage. The orchestra was lilting, even bouncy, in “Wunderbar” and lushly romantic in “So in Love.” No wonder the seagulls overhead seemed to be competing for the best spots from which to look and listen.