You might say Cole Porter’s breath was in the air that night — or at least his music.
On a recent evening at Buxton Hill, the Williamstown estate where Porter used to cool his heels when taking a break from city life, a small group of actors gathered outside on a terrace, with a row of lush, green Berkshire hills framing the view in the distance.
Porter had written a few songs from his most successful musical, “Kiss Me, Kate,” right on the premises. The current owner of the house attested that he sometimes hears echoes of Porter’s famous parties in the breeze. But on this night the music arrived more tangibly, when the gathered actors chose some songs from “Kiss Me, Kate” to perform for a few dozen invited guests.
After getting lots of laughs with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” actor Carlos Lopez stepped away, savoring the moment. “It’s not every day you sing Cole Porter at Cole Porter’s house,” he remarked to no one in particular.
He and his castmates are trying to tap into some of that history, with the production of the show that began performances Wednesday at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.
A few days before the Williamstown soirée, director Joe Calarco is stealing bites from his sandwich, alongside two of his actors, during a lunch break interview at the Pittsfield church where they are rehearsing. Though his four-actor adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was an off-Broadway hit in 1998, he says “Kiss Me, Kate” — an irreverent spin on the Bard’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew” — had never been on his professional to-do list.
“I had perceived it as very comic and at times a little showy. I thought it was just going to be a romp,” he says, “but to really get into it and see the truth of the relationships between these characters, that was a real surprise to me.”
Though it didn’t spawn any of his most-remembered songs, the 1948 musical was Porter’s biggest success on Broadway, with more than 1,000 performances and netting the first Tony Award bestowed for best musical. A 1999 revival proved to be a similar hit.
“Kiss Me, Kate” is a play-within-a-play; as a troupe of actors soldier through the eventful opening night of a musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy, the onstage events are mirrored in the actors’ offstage lives. The musical’s book was written by Sam and Bella Spewack.
For this production Paul Anthony Stewart plays Fred, a self-important actor who has recruited his ex-wife Lilli (played by Elizabeth Stanley) to play Katherine to his Petruchio in the Shakespeare, a depiction of a headstrong man’s campaign to subdue the willful personality of his new wife. A subplot involves the pretty Lois (Mara Davi) and her beau Bill (Tyler Hanes), who has just signed Fred’s name to a hefty IOU and thus attracted the attention of two of the least menacing gangsters in musical theater.
Opening the main stage for Barrington Stage’s 20th season, with a cast of 25 and an orchestra numbering more than a dozen musicians, this is the company’s biggest and most involved production yet. The show in this slot last year, a revival of “On The Town” directed by John Rando, was such a success that it is slated to open on Broadway this fall. Calarco has worked here before; at Barrington Stage in 2010 he directed the new musical “The Memory Show,” which played off-Broadway last year.
“Kiss Me, Kate” is a show that “bridges both of these worlds,” Stewart says, “where it goes into farce but really keeps intact who these people are. It’s really the deep, mad love they have for each other that propels the whole story forward.”
Though the original “Shrew” seems, on its face, to be a vigorous endorsement of a rigidly patriarchal society, its full text leaves room for a more nuanced interpretation. Porter’s musical takes another step toward a more contemporary view, and Calarco says he intends to emphasize the strength that both Fred and Lilli possess.
“When she surrenders to him, I think she’s just further embracing the strength that she has and figuring out how to use it, in perhaps a smarter way,” says Stanley of her character. “She’s just a strong woman of spirit and mind, and that has not been encouraged, historically. I think it has been a battle since the beginning of time and it continues to be.”
Porter, a writer who knew his way around a double entendre, spiced his ever-clever lyrics for this show with plenty of suggestive asides. They include a reference to the Kinsey Reports and the suggestion that Lois will keep having sex with an otherwise unappealing suitor named Tex as long as he keeps sending her checks. Since Shakespeare was “the raunchiest playwright ever,” Calarco says, Porter was the ideal person to adapt his material.
In fact, the director reveals, one thing that made Stewart stand out in the auditions for Fred/Petruchio was that the actor wasn’t afraid to embrace this bawdy element. When singing “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” he was “the only one who looked at his crotch” to emphasize the subtext of Petruchio’s sex-starved lament about married life. (The answer to the titular question, by the way, is: “Totally dead.”)
“It’s unbelievable what [Porter] gets away with,” Calarco says.
But with all the energy and resources poured into the production, this director is just hoping to get away with a hit.