On Wednesday night, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra collaborated in a free concert version of the classic Cole Porter musical, Kiss Me, Kate. A full audience showed up at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, tightly packing the lawn well before the music started, and a steady stream of latecomers continued to arrive well into the show. Though much of the strong performance was obscured by technical issues in the first half, the cast and crew rallied to present a high-energy second act finish to the receptive crowd.
Musicals impose complex demands on sound engineers and the outdoor environment of the Hatch Shell and Esplanade is often unforgiving. From all appearances, the pre-show sound check for the cast was inadequate: body mics were badly placed, mic levels were set far too low at the start of songs and solos, and very little attention was paid mid-song to balancing voices in duets and ensemble numbers. This caused much of the clever script and many of Cole Porter’s excellent lyrics to be inaudible in the first half, and for volume levels to fluctuate wildly as singers turned their heads (which was very often, thanks to Yo-el Cassell’s lively choreography). These problems were purely technical in nature, plaguing even those with the best diction, and were magically resolved when the cast returned after intermission. The difference was astounding: in the first half, the audience was mostly silent, more polite than responsive; in the second half, when people could hear finally hear everything clearly, regular ripples of laughter accompanied the steady stream of puns and jokes from the stage.
Some elements of the staging were poorly executed. Marc Kudisch (as Fred/Petruchio) delivered his first dance solo (to “Were Thine That Special Face”) in a mostly black costume against a backdrop of black bottoms worn by the orchestra; faced with this black-on-black combination, his sinuous dance movements were unsurprisingly hard to see, even by the eagle-eyed. An investment in backlighting or even a simple backdrop would have obviated this and similar issues. Fortunately, most numbers took place further downstage and avoided the problem of featured actors blending into the background.
The standout principal performance of the evening was delivered by Kudisch, as expected, but several members of the supporting cast also gave exceptional performances. Joe Aaron Reid (as Paul) kicked off the second act with a brilliant rendition of “Too Darn Hot”, with every syllable of his seductive singing carrying clearly and at the perfect volume even as he weaved around the stage; his turn of somersaults at the end of the song drew appreciative gasps and strong applause from the audience. It was a shame this performance did not feature him more. The two gangsters (played by Fred Sullivan, Jr. and Brian Richard Robinson) were also frequent scene-stealers and brought down the house with their hammed-up “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”—the audience’s clear favorite number of the evening.
Not all performances were so finely tuned. McCaela Donovan (as Lois/Bianca) gave a decent start with “Why Can’t You Behave” (I cannot call it stellar, since through no fault of her own it was often hard to hear), but her rendition of “Always True to You in My Fashion” was undermined by an unfortunate stylistic choice. The former song showed that Donovan has a rich natural singing voice, especially in her lower register, but most of the latter song was delivered with a very nasal placement and tone—the same sound affected for her character’s spoken voice. This device worked fairly well in the ensemble piece “Tom, Dick or Harry” when it alternated with more natural-sounding voices, but by “Always True…” the effect had become “always grating.” Her character, Lois, would have been more sympathetic if the “cutesy” nasal act had been dropped for her final song, even for one drawn-out moment—but that is a rendition that did not grace the stage on Wednesday night.
The Boston Landmarks Orchestra gave an agreeable performance throughout. The general mood was lively and festive, with conductor Christopher Wilkins favoring faster tempos throughout the evening. Neither did Wilkins leave much time for contemplation: moments of silence were rare and usually quite brief. Songs followed each other in quick succession with barely a pause from the cutoff of one to his downbeat for the next. The music heard was, admittedly, a concert arrangement that deleted most of the underscoring and transition music—but one is tempted nevertheless to say that Wilkins could have been more liberal and theatrical in his use of silence during Act I. This temptation disappeared in the second half, when the louder and more frequent applause provided a natural sense of transition.
The audience left the Esplanade very pleased with the evening, having quickly forgotten the rough patches back at the start of Act II. As they filed out, numerous attendees could be heard discussing songs and scenes from the show, with more than a few humming and singing snippets. Such responses are unfortunately rare at concerts these days and reinforced the point that the mission of these free public concerts was well-served. One hopes that the Landmarks Orchestra and Commonwealth Shakespeare will undertake more such collaborations.