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Worthy foils: (l-r) Romano and Larsen in Kiss Me, Kate.

Photo: Cory Waever/Glimmerglass Opera

Stand and Sing

By B.A. Nilsson

Kiss Me, Kate

By Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack, conducted by David Charles Abell, directed by Diane Paulus

Glimmerglass Opera, July 7

Stephen Sondheim is fond of noting that he doesn’t work in opera because it’s a form that is developed without an audience at hand. While popular taste shouldn’t dictate artistic quality, a theatrical piece should please or at least pleasingly provoke an audience, and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate has been doing that for 60 years.

As part of the Glimmerglass Opera’s current inspired-by-Shakespeare season, it’s a departure from the operatic norm, and a welcome contrast. But it’s been subjected to the same high-concept mill that infects so many operatic productions, ultimately revealing the two greatest deficiencies of this mentality: The creative teams don’t trust the score, and don’t understand the nature of wit.

Never has there been as witty a composer-lyricist as Porter, and never has that quality shone through as consistently as in this score. The lyrics alone are the stuff of legend, with fantastic wordplay (“Mister Harris, plutocrat/Wants to give my cheek a pat/If the Harris pat/Means a Paris hat/Bébé!”), puns (“If she says your behavior is heinous/Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus’) and double entendre (“She gave new meaning to the leaning tower of Pisa”).

As Katharine/Lilli Vanessi in the musicalized Taming of the Shrew that forms the core of this show, Lisa Vroman sings the hilarious “I Hate Men,” one of those classic Porter numbers that tops itself as it goes along. Not content to trust to the wit of the piece, director Diane Paulus has Vroman begin the number with a kind of voodoo doll with which to inflict one of the endless crotch-grabbings that infect this production, and go on to display an artillery of torture devices, eventually swinging nunchaku as she sings.

This kind of over-the-top foolishness detracts from the piece. Sure, it gets the cheap gallery laughs, but is that why we’re in this business?

Be prepared for plenty along these lines, including a bizarre, needless op-art setting for Petruchio’s house and an incompetent, unnecessary rewrite of the last stanza of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

But see this production for the incredible dancing of Damian Norfleet, who dominates “Too Darn Hot,” and the wonderful work of Courtney Romano, who, as the flighty Lois Lane/Bianca, practically steals the whole show, bringing new life to the ditzy-showgirl cliche.

Romano is effectively paired with David Larsen (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio) throughout the show, and Larsen himself does a showstopping turn singing and dancing “Bianca” in the second act.

Lilli Vanessi’s foil is the egotistical Fred Graham/Petruchio, sung beautifully by Brad Little. The best number of the show is his act two reprise of “So in Love,” which, for some incredible reason, includes no superfluous business. But both Little and Vroman lack the larger-than-life qualities those roles demand.

The production screams for better dance. Choreographer Darren Lee has the unenviable task of getting non-dancing singers to move, but even the more accomplished scenes lacked the conviction of committed movement.

Making a welcome return to Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, the orchestra sounded terrific under David Charles Abell’s more than able direction. If only they were backing a concert version instead.

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