Lyric Theatre at Illinois concludes its Shakespeare-centered 2015-16 season this week with the enduringly popular Tony Award-winning musical Kiss Me, Kate, a light-hearted retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Directed by Illinois faculty member Sarah Wigley Johnson, the high-energy show will bring its immensely hummable Cole Porter tunes to Krannert’s Tryon Festival Theatre from April 21st-24th.

The show, penned in the late 1940s by real-life feuding lovers Bella and Samuel Spewack, portrays a tempestuous pair of bickering exes who are cast as the leads in a touring production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. As the duo battles backstage to get the upper hand in their dealings with one another, their squabbling inevitably affects their onstage portrayal of the Shakespearean Petruchio and his attempts to “tame” the fiery Katherine by forcing her to be a meek and obedient wife. Meanwhile, keeping the performance of The Taming of the Shrew on track becomes even more difficult when another couple’s woes cause debt-collecting gangsters to arrive on the scene backstage. (Though fortunately not the kind of debt-collecting gangsters who are above performing a humorous Shakespeare-inspired ditty when the occasion calls for one.)

The fact that all of this includes frequent musical numbers composed by the inimitable Cole Porter is a major ingredient in the show’s success. The score of Kiss Me, Kate is a fascinating mixture of songs written for the backstage scenes and songs written to be part of The Taming of the Shrew. Whether he’s dabbling with Shakespearean phrasing and language in “Were Thine That Special Face” or having the cast sing about how it’s “Too Darn Hot” for lovemaking, though, Porter’s famous ability to combine a catchy tune with witty lyrics helps the show’s music consistently sparkle.

Smile Politely talked to director Sarah Wigley Johnson this week about what makes Kiss Me, Kate such a fun way to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”.

Smile Politely: Cole Porter’s music is still beloved today, but for the most part his individual songs have stayed popular while the shows and films they initially appeared in have become somewhat obscure. Kiss Me, Kate is one of the few shows with a Porter-penned score that’s still performed on a very regular basis. What qualities do you think have helped it remain popular over time?

Sarah Wigley Johnson: The score of Kiss Me, Kate has always felt like “Porter’s Greatest Hits!” to me. Even before I knew the plot of the show or had ever seen the production live, I could hum half of the songs found in the score. There is an amazing variety of things to love about this music—from the belty, big-band sounds of “Always True to You” to the luscious, superbly-set lyric of “So in Love” to the catching simplicity of “Too Darn Hot” and the lilting waltz of “Wunderbar.”

SP: A couple of the numbers from Kiss Me, Kate are relatively well known—“Too Darn Hot”, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”—but there are also a lot of songs that may be completely new to audience members seeing the show for the first time. Do you have a favorite of the less well-known numbers, and why?

Johnson: By now, I love each number of the show for different reasons, but if I had to choose one that I think audiences will be especially excited by, it would be “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” This number takes place within The Taming of the Shrew and is a huge featured dance number which includes several styles of music (swing, madrigal, etc.). During the course of the song, Bianca’s three suitors all court her with athletic dancing and difficult harmonies while she shows off for them with her share of kicks and turns. Just tonight I was sitting in the audience thinking, “Everyone who sees the show is going to be so impressed by this number!”

SP: The “play within a play” in this show is a fairly significant part of the action, with many of the musical numbers taking place within it. Did the near equal importance of the “backstage” and “onstage” scenes create any particular challenges for the cast or the design team?

Johnson: The biggest challenges of the “play within a play” aspect of this show lie with the actors, especially for the students playing Lilli/Katherine and Petruchio/Fred. In rehearsal, questions such as “Is this moment more Fred or more Petruchio?” pop up, as the actor (Anson Woodin) is playing Fred playing Petruchio and has to go beyond how he himself would play Petruchio to how his character of Fred handles this challenge. Each character has two distinctive costumes, the “backstage” costume and the Taming of the Shrew costume. This creates a ton of work for our wonderful costumer (Olga Maslova) but exponentially clarifies what is happening for both the actors and the audience.

SP: Kiss Me, Kate was written in the late 1940s and The Taming of the Shrew is from the late 16th century. Culture has changed a lot and it’s fair to say that modern audiences may view the “battle of the sexes” very differently than audiences in either of those time periods did. Did you have to make any adjustments to your staging with 2016 audiences in mind?

Johnson: I consider myself a feminist, and had a very difficult time with several moments in Taming of the Shrew when first preparing to stage Kiss Me, Kate. I feel that one the major keys to properly translating this show is allowing the character of Katherine to never feel victimized. If she always believes she still somehow holds the power in her relationship and circumstance, it is much easier and more interesting to swallow this text. We have an incredible fight choreographer (Zev Sternberg) who also helped translate Katherine’s strength and tenacity and onstage during the Katherine/Petruchio moments of physical battling.

SP: What has been the most rewarding aspect of staging this show?

Johnson: The collaborative spirit in all aspects of this production have been so rewarding. I truly have a “dream team” both creatively and on the production side of this endeavor and can’t imagine this process without one of them. It is constantly inspirational to see students from all aspects of campus coming together to sing, dance, and act because they love creating and sharing their talents. There is nothing that makes me happier than watching a voice performance major pull a dance major aside and ask “Can you go over that ‘Another Op’nin’ combination with me?” or to see a dance major pull a voice major aside and say “Can you double-check my pitches on this phrase?” We are all learning from each other constantly, and when I look around I see Krannert doing exactly what it was built to do…bring the arts together for both the students and the community.

SP: Is there anything else you’d like audiences to know before seeing Kiss Me, Kate?

Johnson: Yes! If you don’t usually consider yourself a “theatre-goer” THIS is the production to see because there is something for everyone: 72 onstage musicians, incredible dancing, gorgeous costumes, and tunes that are undeniably catchy!

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Kiss Me, Kate runs from April 21st-24th with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Single tickets are $29 with discounted tickets available for senior citizens ($25), students ($18), and U of I/Youth ($10). Tickets may be purchased online or by contacting the Krannert Box Office in person or at 800/KCPATIX.