Candlelight Playhouse production does justice to classic musical

It’s been 70 years since “Kiss Me, Kate” opened on Broadway, and whenever one is looking at a musical of this vintage it’s worth asking how it’s held up. For “Kiss Me, Kate,” the story of the backstage romantic conflicts among the cast of a musical, it’s a mixed bag.

As usual, Candlelight’s production is topnotch, with the well-resourced theater able to mount an elaborate production with everything you want in a musical: a full, live orchestra, enormous sets, fantastic costumes, complex lighting design and big musical numbers with a large cast of talented players. “Kiss Me, Kate” features music by Cole Porter and was aimed, at the time of its creation, to be an answer to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s spectacularly successful “Oklahoma!” of 1943.

By most measures, it did quite well, racking up over 1,000 performances on Broadway, winning a Tony in 1949 for Best Musical and going onto many revivals in the ensuing decades. It may not have as many instantly recognizable songs as “Oklahoma!”, but “Kiss Me Kate” makes up for it with a funny and fanciful plot involving the complicated lives of the players attempting to open a new musical based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The Kate of the title is Lilli Vanesse (a fun, fiery Heather McClain), the daughter of Baptista (Kent Sugg), a lord in Padua, Italy back in the day. She’s the one he’s having trouble marrying off, given her prickly personality. Enter suitor Petruchio (a strong-voiced Scott Hurst Jr.), who’s willing to overlook Kathryn’s supposed drawbacks to marry into a wealthy family.

As the “Shrew” plot works its way through on stage, in the dressing rooms we find that the egotistical Fred Graham (who plays Petruchio) and Lilli are a year past their divorce, but they’ve still got a thing for each other even as their old conflicts continue to surface. Lilli has gone on to become a film star, and this is her last stage performance before she marries Gen. Harrison Howell (David L. Wygant), a MacArthur-like military man with a wandering eye who’s already had a fling with another actress, Lois Lane (Lisa Kay Carter), who plays Kathryn’s sister Bianca in “Shrew.”

Got all that?

Mixed into the plot is another intrigue involving Lois’s beau Bill Calhoun (Bob Hoppe), an actor with a gambling problem who hangs his latest mob IOU at the feet of Fred. A pair of gangsters (Brian Murray and Eli Stewart) show up just before curtain looking for the money and aren’t persuaded by Fred’s insistence that they’ve got the wrong guy.

It’s an ambitious and layered set of goings-on as penned by Sam and Bella Spewack, and at times it can be a challenge to follow. Looking at this show through the lens of today’s greater sensitivity to sexual harassment and gender gaps, parts of it can be a bit cringe-worthy – particularly in Act II, where Lilli’s insubordination on stage as Kathryn is punished with a good spanking at the hands of Fred/Petruchio. Her bottom is so sore she cannot sit down in the following scene.

Ouch, on a few levels. It should be noted that the spanking was precipitated by Lilli striking Fred repeatedly on stage in response to her discovery that he’s got something going on with Lois. She also belts out a song earlier professing her hatred for men and, later, one lamenting the simplicity of women.

If you can compartmentalize this kind of thing by attributing it to different times, you’ve still got a fun, well-produced musical. As directed by Robert Michael Sanders and choreographed by Kate Vallee, the Candlelight’s “Kiss Me, Kate” is a tight, smooth-running production. Also worth noting is the nice lighting and sound design by Emily Maddox and Phillip Baugh, respectively. It’s that kind of detail that makes these Candlelight productions worth the trip up north.

“Kiss Me, Kate,” runs through April 15.