*”Celebrated for its ability to attract talent from television and film who want to return to their theatre roots, there is “Another Op’nin Another Show” at the Pasadena Playhouse – which brings multi-Emmy Award winning actor Wayne Brady to its stage in the Cole Porter musical, “Kiss Me, Kate.” Brady, an entertainer of seemingly limitless talent, heads an energetic cast in the production which director Sheldon Epps decided to let audiences view through a fresh, colorful lens.
The play, which originated on Broadway in 1948, and has generally been cast with Caucasian actors now shines the light on the trailblazing African American actors and entertainers of the early 20th century.
In a telephone interview with EURThisNthat editor, DeBorah B. Pryor, Epps, who has been at the Pasadena Playhouse as artistic director since 1997, talks about his process in choosing which play to direct, and why he took this particular spin on the American classic.
“Plays and musicals are hard to do. We have great fun, but they’re a lot of work. As a director I really want to find something that gets me excited about getting up and going to rehearsal every day. Material that I think is interesting to explore.”
“I thought of it based on some research, and discovering shows like ‘The Voodoo MacBeth…[and] ‘Swingin’ the Dream’ …the musical version of Midsummer Night’s Dream – with Louie Armstrong of all people – and Dorothy Dandridge was in the chorus,” states Epps. “There’s a long history of black performers in classical material, but also in musical adaptations of classical material.”
The director says that the new lens through which he decided to show the play, the black trailblazers, fit “naturally and like a glove” and very few changes had to be made.
“We’ve made very, very few changes in the material; which is a sign that a concept, an idea fits naturally and like a glove rather than forcing it, when you don’t have to rewrite the material,” Epps adds.
“Kiss Me, Kate” is a show within a show kind of play; and the actors within the show are performing a take on the musical version of William Shakespeare‘s “Taming of the Shrew,” with their own production called “Swingin’ the Shrew.” The stars of the production, Brady as Fred/Petruchio and Merle Dandridge, an accomplished thespian of mainly musical theatre, as Lilli/Kate.
The relationship of the two characters (and another woman I’ll mention in a bit) are the meat of the play overall, yet the play has a broader aspect that does not rely on them. They were once married, now divorced; and both have moved on with their lives, romantically, but now must learn to work together as director and leading lady. It is obvious they are still in love and respect one another – but they also have egos and pride and baggage which makes it hard for them to admit it, even to themselves.
Brady and Dandridge play well off of each other; even if personality-wise, it’s not easy to buy their character as ever being a true couple. Dandridge’s Lilli seems way too upper-crust and snooty to Brady’s more comical, down-to-earth, Fred. But both actors manipulate the language and the music with great ease.
Brady, especially, appears to be having so much fun in his role throughout the production; you actually find yourself wondering if some of his antics are really a part of the script or the product of ad-lib.
On press night, when I spoke to the actor about this, he laughed and told me, “My drama teacher said I should make my work look so easy that people will think they can do it.” Then he laughed and added, “Of course they soon learn that they can’t!”
Dandridge has a lovely singing voice and you will especially love her singing the hilarious, “I Hate Men” (especially the part when she sits on the step and hisses the words. Brilliant!)
“Musicals are so hard. You have to do so many different things and make them seem effortless when they come together,” the actress told Pryor in the interview. “I almost feel like this particular role, unconsciously, I’ve been grooming myself for it. My love of Shakespeare, my love of music, my love of classics and the specific music theater genre,” she said.
“Putting all those together, and then in a piece that highlights the shoulders on which I stand in the entertainment industry. Those kinds of performers in those days who did break down doors, who did make a path easier for me to do what I do,” offers Dandridge, whose ethnicity is comprised of African American, Korean and Japanese.
Sheldon admits that the discovery process in this project has been very exciting and says his job was made easier because the actors really committed themselves; bringing in pictures and artifacts they researched and found. He adds how collaborative they were; and especially mentioned star, Wayne Brady in this vain.
“Wayne is really going to surprise some people who only know him from the television work, with his ability in classical language and beautiful, beautiful voice as well; and so at home in his music.”
Dandridge says she thinks everyone in the cast feels like she does, as far as having groomed themselves for this project.
“There is a spirit when we all get together of absolute joy; that we’re doing something bold and courageous and new and that we’re going to surprise and thrill people.” Merle attributes this to the leadership of director, Sheldon Epps, who she says “encourages us to be bold and unapologetic.”
When asked if Brady came with “diva” baggage, Merle replies,
“Zero. [He is] Coming from a great place of humility; wanting to learn, to be better. Every single moment trying to find a way to make everything better, to elevate the entire thing and his own game. I feel he’s trying to stretch himself a bit as well – which is always interesting. When you’re around someone that talented, what are you going to stretch to?” she laughs along with Sheldon. “You know, he’s constantly breaking down his own walls and doing something new and innovative. And its really great to work with him.”
Aside from Brady and Dandridge, standouts in the cast include Jenelle Lynn Randall as Hattie, assistant to Kate. We met her at the play’s opening; where she led the cast in the flavorful gospel-inspired rendition of “Another Op’nin Another Show.” Joanna A. Jones, who is easily a scene-stealer. Jones is the new love-interest of Brady’s character, Fred. An audience favorite, she is also messin’ around with the lovelorn Bill/Lucentio (played adoringly by Terrance Spencer – especially when he made the climb…wink. wink.) and any other man who might look her way and has the ability to offer her the good life! Jones’ character has a real need for attention, and the actress delivers–with solid acting and wonderfully over-dramatic renditions of songs like, “Always True to You in My Fashion,” and “Tom, Dick or Harry.”
And the audience eats it up!
“Kiss Me, Kate” the play (I had never seen it prior to this!) or perhaps Epps’ direction, gives even those in the ensemble plently of room to shine. It seems every ensemble performer was given ample opportunity to find and showcase his or her “moment.” Standouts were Carlton Wilborn as Baptista; and the two thugs, David Kirk Grant and Brad Blaisdell – especially during their duet on “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
On the night the press attended, the audience was loaded with celebrities. Former “American Idol” contestant and season eight runner-up, Adam Lambert was in the audience with his boyfriend; and jumped to his feet to applaud at the play’s conclusion. “A Different World” actress Dawnn Lewis was there and seemed to really enjoy the production – laughing continuously; “Grey’s Anatomy” cast member James Pickens, Jr. was in the house, as was actor Keith David – who starred in a stage production of Paul Robeson in Los Angeles earlier this summer.
Also in the audience were two of the original actresses who played the role of Lilli/Kate on Broadway!
But the biggest surprise of the evening was the arrival of the iconic trailblazing actress Diahann Carroll, who was honored with the Diversity Award, at the evening’s 8th Annual Pasadena Playhouse Wells Fargo Theatrical Diversity Project fundraiser.
This night was also a celebration of a renovated Pasadena Playhouse theater; with new, comfortable seats!
“Kiss Me, Kate” runs at the Pasadena Playhouse: 39 S. El Molina, Pasadena, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7p.m. until October 12. Tickets are $57-$145. Th play is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Visit Pasadena Playhouse at www.pasadenaplayhouse.com or call (626) 356-7529 for more info.