In his first official production as the Spokane Civic Theatre's new resident music director, Henry McNulty is working alongside director Melody Deatherage and choreographer Heidy Cartwright on Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate. Not unlike Noises Off, the show that immediately preceded it on the Civic's main stage, Porter's 1948 musical (with a book by Samuel and Bella Spewack) revolves around a nested play — in this case, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew — and all the zany backstage drama in which its cast is embroiled.
"I am coming to this as a Cole Porter fan," McNulty says. "I think he is easily among the strongest composer-lyricists in the history of American musical theater, and also in American popular song. The sheer number of standards that he wrote is mind-boggling on its own, and it's impressive the number of them that are unexpectedly in Kiss Me, Kate."
Thanks to earworms like "Too Darn Hot," "Tom, Dick or Harry" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," McNulty describes it not only as Porter's "best-known" musical along with Anything Goes (1934) but a "shining example of his work, because it's his first integrated musical in which the songs are part of the story, rather than being a collection of songs around which a story is loosely written."
That story and its show-within-a-show conceit "gave [Porter] the opportunity as composer and lyricist to create something really unique," McNulty says. "Part of what makes the score so engaging is that the audience and the actors are both going back and forth between these worlds — not only within the story but within the score as well.
"It creates a lot of interest and diversity that you wouldn't normally get in other shows from this era," he says, broadly referring to works such as Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun and Carousel.
McNulty cites the instrumental "Pavane" in the second act as an example of some of the more sophisticated, challenging music. "It alternates between measures of 6/4 and 5/4 and then will throw in a surprise 4/4 bar, so that the next time we're back to the 6/4, it feels exciting and unexpected. That happens a lot in Kiss Me, Kate. It really keeps you on your toes as a performer and as a listener."
And, it turns out, as a choreographer. McNulty explains that Cartwright "has had to dip into a number of styles herself to match the musical content." The "courtly" dance of the "Pavane," for example, plays out in stark contrast to "sultry, jazzy" act two opener "Too Darn Hot."
"The dancers have the same experience with the music as they do as singers," he says. "There's a complete physical shift at times, depending on whether they're in the show within a show or the 'real' world of the play."
Along with the 12-member orchestra "to capture the full sound of the score" and the onstage chemistry between "phenomenal leads" Daniel McKeever (as Fred Graham/Petruchio) and Tami Knoell (as Lilli Vanessi/Katharine), the show's carefully put-together choreography is going to be a big draw, McNulty predicts.
"We have some amazing acrobatic performers who are really going to do some surprising things that you don't expect to see on the community [theater] level — really impressive, strong, technical dancing along with flips and tricks and set-piece moments. It will be a very compelling and memorable experience." ♦
Kiss Me, Kate • May 19-June 11 • Thu-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • $24-$32 • Spokane Civic Theatre • 1020 N. Howard • spokanecivictheatre.com • 325-2507