PITTSFIELD -- The ah-ha moment in Barrington Stage Company's high-energy, spirited production of "Kiss Me, Kate" comes as Lilli Vanessi (Elizabeth Stanley) delivers Kate's advice to women on how to obey their husbands.
The speech, which comes at the end of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," fit easily within the male-dominated society of Elizabethan England and almost just as easily in 1948, when composer-lyricist Cole Porter and his collaborators, book writers Bella and Samuel Spewack, incorporated the speech into their sublimely witty musical about the nearly disastrous opening night of the Baltimore tryout of a musical adaptation of "Shrew" in which the leading roles of the battling Petruchio and Kate are played by a divorced couple -- the show's somewhat egoistical producer-director-actor Fred Graham (Paul Anthony Stewart) and his fiery, temperamental but talented ex, Lilli, whose combustible offstage relationship somewhat mirrors the volatile onstage relationship between their respectivce characters.
But as Lilli -- who has, moments earlier, walked out on Fred and the show -- unexpectedly appears on stage and begins delivering Kate's advice, it is clear that something profound, something transformative has happened to Lilli and it is reflected in her Kate. Rather than deference and obeisance, Kate's speech is a recognition of the responsibilities partners in a meaningful relationship owe one another. Lilli has come of emotional age, maturity, and so, by extension, has her Kate. Stewart's Fred also comes of age as he realizes fully just how much Lilli and their relationship mean to him. His response, as Lilli's Kate begins to kneel before him, is affecting and appropriate in ways that honor Shakespeare, Porter and the Spewacks, and a 21st century audience.
It's a revealing turn in a propulsive, played-to-the hilt production of a musical that centers on two people who will go to the barricades when it comes to guarding their vulnerabilities.
In a performance etched in showmanship and theatrical bravado, Stewart's Fred is more detached and apart from whatever his deeper feelings for Lilli may or may not be. Stanley's Lilli, on the other hand, is more nuanced. The conflicting feelings that roil within her are discernible. When, while gazing at a poster photo of Graham during the song "So in Love," she comes to the lines "so taunt me, and hurt me, deceive me, desert me," you immediately understand the toll her love for Fred has, and still is, taking.
Director Joe Calarco and his artistic partners, choreographer Lorin Latarro and music director Darren R. Cohen, take the full measure of "Kiss Me, Kate." Calarco's cast counts among its pleasures the sassy, spirited Mara Davi as the flirtatious Lois Lane, who plays Bianca to Lilli's Kate and who has her own hands full in her relationship with Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes), whose inexpert gambling instincts land him in hot water with a mobster; and Carlos Lopez and Michael Dean Morgan who are spot on as two gangsters who come to collect a gambling debt and wind up nearly stealing both "Kate" and "Shrew."
The production flirts with caricature and excess of excess and the material itself suffers from a change made initially for the buoyant 1999 Broadway revival, the insertion of "From This Moment On," dropped from Porter's 1951 musical "Out of This World" and inserted into the 1953 film version of "Kate" but which is at stylistic odds with the rest of the "Kate" score, arguably, song for song, Porter's best.
In the end, BSC's production has nothing more on its mind than to entertain -- and that it does.