The Golden Age of Broadway produced some of the greatest musicals of all time. Think Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe and Cole Porter, writers the likes of which haven't been seen before or since.
Unfortunately, Broadway's Golden Age took place in a period of American history that was not particularly socially conscious. Racism and sexism were prevalent, and even the well-intentioned liberal virtuosos who wrote these seminal classics had those concepts deeply ingrained. Take, for example, South Pacific, which contains the incisive song “You've Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which explains racist tendencies, alongside the garish portrayal of the Pacific Islander native character Bloody Mary.
Similarly cringe-worthy from a modern perspective is the deeply sexist Kiss Me, Kate, which premiered on Broadway in 1948 and is generally perceived as one of Cole Porter's finest pieces, following a band of actors performing The Taming of the Shrew who find life imitating art. Indeed, the marriage of Porter's lyrical genius with Shakespeare's wit is a match made in heaven: You'd be hard-pressed to find a finer integration of phallic jokes and witty couplets anywhere. The songs are wonderful (or are they “Wunderbar“?) and have admirably withstood the test of time.
The show's story, however, has not. But this proves the only stumbling block for the Pasadena Playhouse's new production of the musical, playing through Oct. 12. Director Sheldon Epps nimbly adapts the source material, keeping the setting and casting the show mostly with black actors. The issue of race is acknowledged but underplayed, focusing more on the performances than on social commentary. A few of the songs (such as “Another Op'nin, Another Show” and “Too Darn Hot”) see delightful new arrangements (under the supervision of music director Rahn Coleman) that slip seamlessly into the score.
Wayne Brady plays Fred, the commandeering leader of the acting company, and shrew-tamer in the show-within-a-show. While there's a cognitive dissonance in seeing Brady, who comes across so affably on TV shows such as Whose Line Is it Anyway? and Let's Make a Deal, play the alarmingly misogynistic Fred, he makes it work. Merle Dandridge is a delight as movie star Lilli Vanessi, Fred's ex-wife and current leading lady, and the titular shrew. Dandridge's soprano invigorates the score, and the physical comedy between her and Brady is thoroughly entertaining. Joanna A. Jones and Rogelio Douglas Jr. are vocal standouts in a talented cast.
As a whole, the production is a lovely reminder of the great Broadway musicals of yesteryear. While it errs on the side of being too streamlined plotwise, de-emphasizing some of the material connecting one scene to the next, perhaps that is for the best. As it is, the misogynistic scenes don't sit well (it's particularly uncomfortable watching Fred strike Lilli repeatedly in light of the current national focus on abusive relationships), but they do reflect a mindset that was (and still is) part of our national history, and thus cannot be ignored.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; through Oct. 12. (626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org.
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