Visiting Joseph in Laurel, Kate in Annapolis

Kiss Me Kate Kate and PetruchioLAUREL – “Take you the lute, and you the set of books,” writes Shakespeare in his raucous comedy “The Taming of the Shrew.” Two area shows take up both classic books and, if not the lute, then indeed a variety of instruments to bring vividly to life two classic stories which are so universal that they continue to speak to us today.

“Kiss Me, Kate” at the Annapolis Shakespeare Theatre and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Laurel Mills Theatre were both truely entertaining.          

“Joseph,” for example, is the story of the biblical patriarch sold into slavery and then rising to become a dominant political figure in Egypt. It is also a story about the dangers of unchecked intra-family jealousy and parental favoritism, and even a moral example of how humans can, with some effort, forgive and set aside injuries from the past. Is the bias shown by Joseph’s father, and the alienation from his brothers, reflective of dysfunctional family relationships of today? Could the story also be one of a person’s gradual understanding of one’s self?

For the audience at Laurel Mills, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” it may mean these things, as well as high entertainment. A key prop is Joseph’s colorful coat, which is spread out to reveal a many-colored coat made of patches. It may symbolize the multi-traditional nature of American culture, a theme also reflected by the diverse musical selections and styles within the musical. These varied numbers, representing generations of diverse musical styles and tastes, were beautifully rendered by individual cast members, a chorus and a small band, all elements dancing effortlessly between various musical styles: classic Broadway, country-western, calypso, rock and roll and the French chanson.

In the production I witnessed, the audience took great delight in the Pharaoh, portrayed by an Elvis impersonator singing “Seven Fat Cows” in the style of “Don’t Be Cruel.” Similarly, crowd-pleasing was the biblically robed brothers striding bow-legged and adorned with cowboy hats as they sang “One More Angel in Heaven.” Tracy Davidson, the anachronistic narrator dawning a beige-white pantsuit, was particularly praise-worthy; her soaring, operatic voice added just the right nuances of flair and passion to complement the proceedings on stage.

Occasional modern references here and there (could “fake news” be heard?) increased the glee of the audience. The set was minimalist, but, after all, so was ancient Canaan, whence hailed Joseph. One moment in which we might see how a classic might be given an unusual interpretation is when an excessively proud Joseph exclaims to his brothers in song: “Could it be that I was born for higher things than you?”

Joseph in the biblical text is usually interpreted as naïve, not deliberately flaunting his greatness before his family. Perhaps, however, the musical theatre is not the place to look for in-depth biblical exegesis, and this viewpoint is certainly no reflection on the cast but embedded in the long-running Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.        

Moving across the sands of time from biblical antiquity to the English Renaissance, “Kiss Me, Kate,” playing through June 3 at the Annapolis Shakespeare Company, is Cole Porter’s musical retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” It is, in fact, a play-within-a-play, and the outer and inner plays both involve a war between a vain man and a headstrong woman.    

The genius in “Kate” appears as Shakespeare’s lines sometimes are meant to reflect the Shakespeare inner-play characters, sometimes the Porter outer-play characters, and sometimes both simultaneously. This is no play purely for Shakespeare aficionados.   While it helps to know “The Taming of the Shrew” beforehand, it is by no means necessary, as this is the essence of the Broadway musical: evergreen songs such as “So in Love” and “Another Opening, Another Show” are danced and belted out by a wonderfully talented cast. The three-piece band here should be singled out for special praise, often sounding like a full orchestra. Much of the time, however, they play as an authentic jazz trio. One especially effective in accentuating the play’s 1940s era in which jazz was the popular music to which all of America listened. “Too Darned Hot” was an exceptionally brilliant number, allowing both musicians and dancers to shine together. Also, the trio also occasionally represented sound effects for some of the slapstick humor. The renaissance costumes were as stunning as the authentic 1940’s apparel.

“Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (performed by two gangsters) is here, as in most productions, a special moment in which the audience connects to “Kiss Me, Kate” – and to Shakespeare, all the more so in Annapolis, for this is being performed by a theatre company whose name revolves around Shakespeare and his repertoire.

Visiting Joseph and his brethren in Laurel, Maryland, and Kate and Petruchio in Annapolis is grand entertainment in its own right, but also evidence of the remarkable staying power of the canon, from the days of Canaan to Elizabethan England to the present.


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