Review • Kiss Me, Kate

Broadway. It’s the automatic and ineluctable touchstone for almost any musical, regardless of where it’s performed — notwithstanding the fact that sometimes even Broadway isn’t sufficiently Broadway.

For a largely amateur organization like the Spokane Civic Theatre, then, that metric is inherently unfair. Every single one of the Civic’s onstage performers is a volunteer. The rehearsal periods are much shorter than they are in the professional sphere. The crews are vastly smaller, the resources more limited, the budgets minuscule by comparison. To expect or even hope for Broadway-caliber moments to manifest themselves despite all these constraints would seem to be asking the impossible.

Tami Knoell as Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate.

So when those moments do take place, that’s precisely what makes them all the more special.

The theater’s current production of Kiss Me, Kate, directed by Melody Deatherage, isn’t quite Broadway from start to finish, but there are scenes—the vast majority of them, in fact—where it’s virtually indistinguishable from a quintessential Broadway performance. In these scenes, the sparkle, the panache, the precision, the music, the mise en scène are in a sort of magical equilibrium; they represent the very pinnacle of what the Civic can accomplish in this genre.

Take “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” as Hannah Kimball-Fuller (playing Lois Lane, who in turn is playing Bianca in the show’s nested production of The Taming of the Shrew) playfully duets with her suitors in a swift-tongued hybrid of mock Elizabethan/Jazz Age lingo. Her suitors (Jerrod Galles, Duncan Clark Menzies, Jonah Taylor) gracefully flip, leap and tumble as they vie for her affection; she struts with knock ’em dead confidence and sings with a clear, classic voice that might as well have come straight out of the Victrola. For this and other numbers, music director Henry McNulty gets a full, swinging sound from the 12-piece orchestra.

In act two comes “Too Darn Hot,” an ensemble number that drips in as much irony as sweat. While the performers appear to roast under Matthew Egan’s sultry orangey-red lighting, lamenting the effect the heat is having on their libidos (“I’d like to sup with my baby tonight/ … But I ain’t up to my baby tonight/ ‘Cause it’s too darn hot”), Cole Porter’s music and Heidy Cartwright’s choreography has them furiously tapping across the stage individually and in unison. On opening night, they executed every stomp, every click and clack perfectly. Only the gratuitous shirtlessness seemed a step too far.

And then there’s “Brush up Your Shakespeare,” the late-second-act Vaudevillian number performed by the two anonymous goons (played by Jhon Goodwin and Grady O’Shea). It’s equally well executed — wryly charming, their gangster indifference at odds with their visible delight for Porter’s bawdy puns (“If she fights when her clothes you are mussing/ What are clothes? ‘Much Ado About Nussing’). The comic duo welcomed the false endings as much as the audience.

Daniel McKeever as Fred Graham.

Opposite Kimball-Fuller’s self-assured Lois, Taylor is slightly too boyish for Bill Calhoun, yet that same boyishness gives his dancing a lithe, animated quality. Charismatic and watchable, Tami Knoell and Daniel McKeever are wonderfully paired as love/hate leads Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham. They don’t overplay the hostility or over-schmaltz the romance. Knoell’s dressing-room solo, “So in Love,” has a statuesque, operatic stiffness to it, though she loosens up two scenes later for the more pugnacious (but, amusingly, no less earnest) “I Hate Men.” McKeever generally digs deep into his baritone to get enough range, and it works well enough, but his unusual vocal affectations, which served him well in Rock of Ages, seem slightly out of place here. His manner of delivery often brings Matt Berry‘s tongue-in-cheek grandiosity to mind.

Taken as an entertaining whole, there’s a consummate polish, buoyancy and professionalism on display here that shows just how transcendent the Civic can be when all the right pieces are in place. Minus a smattering of off-notes, this Kiss Me, Kate is far more Broadway than not.

Kiss Me, Kate runs until June 11, 2017 at Spokane Civic Theatre. Tickets are $24 to 32.