Thursday, October 2, 2014

BEHIND THE SCENES: Staging a Cole Porter Classic

Bringing Kiss Me, Kate to Life
--by Jeffrey Polk

In the Beginning
My involvement with Kiss Me, Kate began in early May and a conversation I had with Sheldon Epps, Pasadena Playhouse’s Artistic Director. Sheldon talked to me about creating an all-African American cast for Kiss Me, Kate and he also asked me to stage some of the musical numbers. I quickly realized that this project involved more than just staging songs. This is a very unique musical that incorporates a variety of different dance styles. And it’s choreographing an American classic, a Cole Porter American classic. 

Sheldon started talking about some of the productions in that era of Negro theaters that had performed around the world. There was Voodoo Macbeth, created by the playwright and director Orson Welles. It was the most popular theater performance of the Negro Theatre Project’s New York unit and was performed at Lafayette Theater in Harlem, New York, in 1936. The original Macbeth took place in Scotland, but Welles set his version in the Caribbean. There was also a swing version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado which became Hot Mikado featuring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

During his research, Sheldon also found a musical version of the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream called Swingin’ The Dream, starring Louis Armstrong supported by Benny Goodman’s band that featured a beautiful up-and-coming movie star by the name of Dorothy Dandridge in the chorus.

So in some ways we are not doing anything that’s new with our production; we’re just adding to the rich history of African American theater that already exists. Sheldon also added creator and musician, Rahn Coleman, to the team. Rahn has been musical director for many great shows including Purlie and Ain’t Misbehavin’ and he has worked with some of the vocal greats like Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin.

Creating a Company, or How to Cast a Classic
As Sheldon and I started building the show, we discussed different ways we could make it our own. We talked about the two thugs and the General being white: Brad Blaisdell (Thug 1), David Kirk Grant (Thug 2), and Pat Towne (The General). It made sense to cast it that way.

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge

Sheldon already had a beautiful leading lady in mind to play Lilli/Kate - Merle Dandridge. Merle has worked in theatre, television, and film, and the voice that comes out of her is pure heaven. Wayne Brady, (Fred/ Petruchio) got wind of our African American Kiss Me, Kate and was also very interested in the project. As luck would have it, it fit into his very busy schedule with “Let’s Make A Deal” and “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” among so many other gigs. I’ve known Wayne for years, and I cannot think of a better person to be around, or anyone more professional to work with. He’s a great father and an angel of a man so to have him be part of this project was like being in Heaven. 

The rest of the company members also needed to be stellar performers. We knew it was going to be a small cast, so we had to make sure everybody was more than a triple threat. (And they had to also be wonderful people!) As we were casting, I was looking for actors who would make a good theatre company, not necessarily just be great for a part. They needed a cornucopia of individuality, strength, greatness, pride, and flexibility. And it didn’t hurt if they looked good also!

I asked one of my best friends to recommend someone to help me out through this project. Kye Brackett, choreographer extraordinaire, has worked with many professional people, in addition to serving as Barry Manilow’s choreographer. He had the time off to join me and I was in Heaven. He’s one of my oldest and dearest friends.

Another Op’nin’
Sheldon and I then started talking about the opening, the top of show. The first song in Kiss Me, Kate is “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.” The words in that song mean a lot to everyone who’s ever been a part of the theatre.

“The overture is about to start, you cross your fingers and hold your heart, the curtain’s up and away we go, another opening of another show!” To the average person working in theatre that’s almost like a prayer, or even a spiritual awakening - knowing that we’re getting ready to do a show again; not knowing where our next show will be; will this one close or stay open? We don’t know what’s next but what we do have is the now.

So we designed our opening to be more of a spiritual awakening for all of us in the theatre and then staged it to fit the troupe of Negro players led by Hattie, the dresser (Jenelle Randall). We took the liberty of starting it off with a little jazz, and then moved into the classic opening, on to a gospel awakening, and back to the original opening.

On with the Show
Next we had to figure out how to open the second act and make it our own. “Too Darn Hot” is the number that begins Act II and it really has nothing to do with moving the story along, but it’s a great song nonetheless. It takes place during intermission of the play within the play. Sheldon wanted a little drumbeat break in the number, and we both somehow wanted to capture the feel of that backstage experience. 

I was trying to figure out the best way to do that without being campy or crazy and I decided to use Africa as my inspiration. I had pretty much sketched it all out in my head and was ready to present it during the first rehearsal. Then I realized that Rogelio Douglas, Jr., who was playing Paul, was an excellent tap dancer. Since it’s his song, I knew I needed to merge the two. In continuing the backstage antics, the dressers find that it’s hot and start it off - kind of tap meets Africa meets tap meets musical theater. I also wanted to respect it. The song says it’s too hot to do anything with anybody right now, so I staged it accordingly.

Rogelio Douglas, Jr. and Jenelle Lynn Randall

Playing to their Strengths
We incorporated each individual company member’s strengths into the different songs. In “For Thine That Special Face,” we added a tableau dance behind Wayne Brady as he is singing. Sheldon adjusted scenes so they made sense because we didn’t have a big ensemble and
 I had to think outside the box with staging. Some numbers became shorter, like “Tom, Dick or Harry” with Joanna A. Jones (Lois), Terrance Spencer (Bill/ Lucentio), Eric B. Anthony (Gremio), and Jay Donnell (Hortensio). I added more athleticism in the number to show what all of them can do. Anything is possible and everything you need to create something special is within the song.

Our dancers are incredibly talented. We have a beautiful six-foot tall woman by the name of Shamicka Benn-Moser. We have some very skilled ballet dancers (Theresa Murray and Armando Yearwood Jr.) and excellent actor/dancers (Kimberly Moore, Saudia Rashed and Carlton Wilborn). We literally built the show from the ground up with these people and it has it all. There’s a parade, grape stomping, barrel rolling, and everything else that can possibly fill the stage. 

Design Inspiration and the End Result
Sheldon talked about Archibald John Motley, Jr. an African American artist, whose style of painting fits into the 1930’s and 40s motif, and how that would inform the visual design. John Iacovelli, the scenic designer, had an excellent idea about how to make the set work and he gave us a mini version to let us know what we had to play with. And using the back wall of the stage as part of the set for the opening is stunning.

Our costume designer, David K. Mickelsen, picked up some wonderful pieces from a Shakespeare company in Utah, along with an authentic 40s look for the opening and everyone looks gorgeous.

I couldn’t be prouder of this production of Kiss Me, Kate. Just seeing the way it has come together, and knowing that it’s Sheldon’s passion piece, makes it a spectacular, heartwarming experience for me. It has been one inspirational moment after another.

I do recommend that people who have never seen the show, or are just interested in seeing a great, classic, golden age musical, come out and experience it. There really is something for everyone!

Wayne Brady

Through October 12, 2014
Pasadena Playhouse
39 South El Molino Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101
Tickets: 626-356-7529 or

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