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'Kate' crackles with comic energy, tunes

Clackamas Rep puts a modern spin on Shakespeare classic


by: COURTESY OF TRAVIS NODURFT - Noted Portland-area theater newcomer Merideth Kaye Clark (second from left) is part of Clackamas Reps Kiss Me Kate, along with (left to right) Leif Norby, James Sharinghousen and Amelia Morgan-Rothschild.   “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and prepare for “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” because when “Kiss Me Kate” heats up the stage it’s going to be “Too Darn Hot.”

Those three songs, along with a slew of other classic Cole Porter tunes, are sure to be crowd-pleasers, says David Smith-English, the director of the musical, which opens at Clackamas Repertory Theatre on Aug. 3.

Although CRT is based in Oregon City at Clackamas Community College, it stars Leif Norby, familiar to Portland audiences since 1992, and Merideth Kaye Clark, who recently moved to Portland.

The two actors play dual roles, Norby as Fred/Petruchio and Clark as Lilli/Kate, in the show, which is sort of a musical within a musical.

The plot revolves around a feuding theatrical couple, Fred and Lilli, who were once married to each other, and now are starring in a musical production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

There is intense conflict onstage as Petruchio seeks to “tame Kate, marry her, and live happily ever after, and then there is their relationship offstage, which mirrors what is happening onstage,” Smith-English says.

Smith-English has worked with Norby twice before at CRT, and says he would not even have attempted to direct this “big, hard show,” without Norby as the leading man.

“He sounds fabulous. Cole Porter’s songs really fit guys like Leif, with his high baritone voice,” Smith-English says.

“Kiss Me Kate” marks the Portland debut for Clark, who was last seen onstage here as Elphaba in the first national tour of the Broadway musical “Wicked.”

Originally from Kansas City, Mo., she earned a master’s degree in musical theater at San Diego State University, and began her career as a concert artist and musical theater performer in California. She has a host of theatrical credits all over the United States, so why come to Portland?

“It’s a love story,” Clark says, adding that she met a Portland guy when she was in Florida, and had a long-distance relationship for a year.

“I was doing a show off Broadway, and when it closed, I was ready to take a break from New York City. When I came to Portland on tour with ‘Wicked,’ it was my favorite spot on the tour,” so she jumped at the opportunity to return.

When she auditioned for the role in “Kiss Me Kate,” Clark was “exactly what I was looking for. She has an incredible voice and wonderful vocal technique,” Smith-English says.

“She is such a good actor; when I tell her one thing, it’s done, and Leif is doing the same thing,” he says.

The two actors have an excellent rapport onstage, and they are able to bring out the humor in the script, while at the same time “when we stop for those touching moments, they mean something,” Smith-English says.

“To hear them sing these songs is wonderful, and alone is worth the price of admission.”

Norby has performed at Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage and Broadway Rose, among other theater groups in Portland.

He has wanted to play Fred/Petruchio in “Kiss Me Kate,” ever since he saw a production of it years ago. He also loved the movie version of “The Taming of the Shrew,” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

It has always been Clark’s dream to live and perform in the same city, and when she was in New York City, she found herself on tour most of the time, so Portland is her new artistic home, Clark says. She already has lined up several more roles, including one in “Fiddler on the Roof,” for Portland Center Stage.

Lilli/Kate “has been on my bucket list of roles. She is one of the best female leads in the musical theater canon. I love the complexity of the role. I get to do some Shakespeare and some real conflict,” she says.

Lilli is the “quintessential diva who demands attention and takes over a room when she walks in,” Clark says, adding, “Onstage she is a cantankerous Elizabethan woman, but as she plays that character with her ex-husband, she finds that underneath it all, they are still in love.”

Her favorite moment?

“Leif and I had a great time working out the fight scene amongst Shakespeare’s text. I get to slap him five times, and it ends with him spanking me,” she says.