August 02, 2005

Catching up #2: Kiss me, Kate

This past weekend, I saw the Prairie Players production of Kiss me, Kate in Harbach. It reminded me a lot of a high school musical, not least because nearly all of the actors were high school students or recent graduates. I don't know if this is usual for PPCT's summer show or not, but it seemed a little strange. On the other hand, most of the kids seemed to be pretty good, so I don't think it's a bad thing.

However, that's not how it appeared at first. The opening number, "Another op'ning, another show" was incredibly weak. The singing was weak, the choreography was weak (and poorly executed), and the whole thing just went clunk. I was squirming in my seat, worried I was going to have to endure another two hours of this. Argghhh.

Which is a shame, because that was probably the only really bad part of the show. The rest wasn't perfect, but I was able to get into it after that. I really wonder what happened. Perhaps it was just overambitious; I don't think any other number tried to move as many people around the stage on that scale.

Note that I haven't mentioned the music yet. The "pit" consisted of just one guy, the musical director. I wondered for a while whether he was playing on a cheap synthesiser or whether the music was canned... if the former, he was doing a great job of playing, but why did his keyboard have to be so cruddy, and if the latter, what the hell kind of crap canned accompaniment was this? It didn't include a single authentic-sounding instrument, and I know that our synth technology is better than that these days. Asking after the show, I found out he had played all the music through his iBook, and that he had sequenced it---track upon track upon track---all on his own. So, he gets really good geek points for sequencing it all through his laptop, and musician props for playing it all and putting it together. But I found that it really detracted from the show to have all the music sound like that. It also made a lot of the scene transitions a lot more self-conscious; having all the music pre-sequenced made it impossible to vamp while everyone got in place. Was it really so impossible to find a four- or five-piece pit orchestra? It's not like we need the Boston Pops, here. The high school musicals seem to manage just fine. (And the most gratuitous part of all of it is that he ginned up a canned "orchestra tuning" sound that went on for, like, a minute. Come on.)

After putting the first number behind them, the actors turned out to have perfectly good singing voices. Many of the songs were a real stretch, range-wise, which was a little unfortunate, but this is one of the hazards of doing musical theatre with a very small casting pool---you tend to be able to cast a given role for the acting or for the vocal range, but not both. The problem was compounded by the fact that the canned music was much too loud and the microphones seemed to have some... issues. I'm not sure why they were miked at all, actually; the mics were turned down or off for the spoken lines, and the voices carried just fine. Couldn't they just turn the accompaniment down? I definitely found the jaw-mounted sports announcer mics to be conspicuous and distracting. And even with the extra volume, the lyrics were often quite hard to understand. (Not that Cole Porter lyrics always make the greatest sense to begin with. :)

That rear projector in Harbach is just a problem. Does nobody else notice that the main light shines right through the cyc, and gets in your eyes? I'm pretty sure there are ways around this (mounting it much higher or much lower, for instance), but this is not the first time I've seen this happen here.

One funny thing I realised partway through the show is that the plot of KMK is really quite similar to that of Moon over Buffalo, playing concurrently in the next town over. Aside from taking place around the same time, both revolve around a play-within-a-play, with an actress estranged from her stage roots, and her former lover, thrown by circumstance back on the stage and into the company of that former lover despite a current engagement to another, who is also hanging around backstage. Hijinks ensue. MOB has more farce and less singing, but the similarities are certainly striking.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a Cole Porter extravaganza unfolds. Light on continuity, but heavy on one-liners, word play, and individually great songs; the advantage of this is that even with a clunker of an opening, and occasional fuffs thereafter, the jewels were able to shine unimpeded. Cole Porter wrote some really catchy tunes, which were for the most part done justice. "Why can't you behave?", "Too darn hot", and "Tom, Dick, or Harry" will probably all be familiar to people, even if they're not sure where they came from---the last of these, performed with a perfect deadpan, had me busting a gut at the constant innuendo. "Wunderbar" is another familiar one; I suppose it was sung well, but I was too distracted by the dreadful attempt at a waltz. I really have to make all the local directors know that I'm perfectly happy to give crash courses in these things. "Where is the life that late I led?" continues to drive me crazy, because I know it from somewhere else, but I can't decide where. I have a nagging suspicion it's a Silly Song, but I checked the list from the collection and none of them seem to match. Argh.

The pinnacle of the show is certainly "Brush up your Shakespeare". It bears no connection by plot to anything else; it's just a litany of puns and jokes on the titles of a couple dozen Shakespeare plays. Many of which are only funny when performed with a vaguely Bronx-Brooklyn-mobster stereotypical accent, as indeed Jeff Cervantes and Kevin Dean did. Bravo!

Compliments also on the stage presence of the entire assembled cast; when a large set piece fell over backstage, knocking one of the onstage set pieces askew, the most anyone onstage reacted was a brief glance in that direction, and most not even that. The show goeth on....

Watching this play with a modern eye is a bit difficult. The plot (such as it is) has a bunch of men working to break a strong-willed woman, and succeeding. As played, the first scene where Fred is fighting with Lilli and holding her down felt very uncomfortably like rape. The spanking scene can be played a number of ways, but this show's Fred looked like he was angrily beating Lilli; I seem to remember another production (the movie?) where Fred at least was played as exasperated and jovial---not a huge improvement, I suppose. And it would be difficult to redeem the final scene, where Lilli goes on and on about how subservient women should be. This production tried to mitigate that a bit, with Lilli winking at Lois; I suppose that is supposed to mean, "this is what we say for the men's benefit, but it's a bunch of bull." But it's too subtle and (I think) can't be reconciled with the rest of the scene.

This show was decidedly a mixed bag. There were a lot of shining moments, where a funny line was well delivered or a good song well sung. But a lot of little problems conspired to make this show a lot less than it could have been. I certainly don't think my time was wasted, and I definitely plan to attend future PPCT shows. But I do hope that they go a bit better....

"I'm not saying that the Canadian system is perfect, or even awesome. I am saying that we pay twice as much per capita as they do already, so we could probably have a system that has the Canadian virtue of universal coverage and the US virtue of enough money thrown at the problem to produce, Voltron-like, a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts." --Mike Kimmitt

Posted by blahedo at 1:24am on 2 Aug 2005
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