When the Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate first opened in 1948, it instantly resuscitated the floundering career of Cole Porter. A show-within-a-show about actors performing a musical version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, it was the first show to win a Tony award for Best Musical, in 1949. Nineteen forty-nine was also the first year that the awards came in the form of medallions; in the Tony's previous two ceremonies, the male winners were given cigarette cases and jeweled money clips, and the women were given solid-gold compacts and diamond bracelets.
It seems unlikely that any modern awards show would give such quaintly old-fashioned prizes, though it seems just as unlikely that, were Kiss Me, Kate appearing for its first time, it would be given a Best Musical prize at all. The show does contain a number of Cole Porter's most enduring songs ("So in Love," "Too Darn Hot"), but its clunky book written by Bella and Samuel Spewack is weak, preposterous and sloppily constructed, and the premise—a battle of the sexes in which male-on-female spankings are expected to draw big laughs—is as out of place and dated as those cigarette cases and money clips.
In Sixth Street Playhouse's season-opening production of Kiss Me, Kate, directed by Craig A. Miller with musical direction by Janis Wilson, the energetic and mostly charming cast does its best to treat the material as retro-tinged satire. Miller, who has a fine eye for staging the movements and poses of a large cast, makes everything look good. But even the charming, larger-than-life performances of Taylor Bartolucci and Barry Martin as Lilli and Fred cannot out-dazzle the fact that at its core, this play is just not that great.
The music, on the other hand, is magnificent.
Though many of the tunes seem to have been written for party guests at Cole Porter's apartment and then distributed randomly throughout Kiss Me, Kate just because they are good songs, there are a number of true gems. Cast members, many of them local community theater veterans, know how to sing and sell this kind of music. Although as a whole, the production ends up collapsing under the dust-coated weight of its outdated ideas, taken as a showcase of great Cole Porter songs, there are some truly enjoyable pleasures to be found.
Unfortunately, with a story so strewn with uncomfortable moments, not everyone will feel that it's worth the trouble.
'Kiss Me, Kate' runs Thursday-Sunday through Sept. 4 at Sixth Street Playhouse. Friday-Saturday at 8pm; 2pm matinees, Saturday and Sunday. 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $15-$35. 707.523.4185.