Shrew: The Musical does more than add songs and dances to William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Adaptor/lyricist/director John R. Briggs attempts a kind of taming of Shakespeare's notoriously problematic romantic comedy, which endorses feminine oppression in the way The Merchant of Venice endorses anti-Semitism. Georgia Shakespeare stages a vivacious remount of Shrew: The Musical that doesn't entirely beautify the original play's ugly qualities.
Originally staged at Georgia Shakespeare in 1993, Shrew transfers the setting from 16th-century Italy to 1930s Miami. The story opens on a coming-of-age party for pretty young Bianca, whom Ann Marie Gideon plays as a flirty party girl. Suitors swarm Bianca in the opening number "She's Got a Special Way," but her father Baptista (Allen O'Reilly) won't let her marry until he first finds a husband for his older daughter Katherine (Park Krausen), a pugnacious beauty who mercilessly browbeats potential husbands.
Bianca's suitors enlist manly dancer Petruchio (Joe Knezevich) to woo and wed Katherine, and Petruchio agrees with the cocky, finger-snappin' tap dance "It's a Tough Job." Briggs' adaptation retains much of Shakespeare's original dialogue for the most famous scenes, while the performances and costuming suggest Guys and Dolls' Sky Masterson matching wits and locking lips with vintage Katharine Hepburn. Longtime Georgia Shakespeare vets Knezevich and Krausen live up to the concept with impressive chops as singers and dancers. They should've been doing musicals long ago.
In the original play, Petruchio weds Katherine against her will at a humiliating marriage ceremony, and then denies her food and sleep until she succumbs to his authority. "This is a way to kill a wife with kindness," he says. "Tamed" Katherine's final speech, "Place your hands below your husband's foot" would suit Islamic fundamentalism's view of femininity. Briggs' musical eliminates that speech and presents the couple more as a partnership of equals, particularly in their duet "I'll Bet on You," in which they wear matching satin pajamas and revel in each other's company. But even though the couple falls in love at first sight, Katherine deserves better than starvation, sleep deprivation and a marriage imposed on her.
The play's other plot thread depicts young Hortensio's (Neal A. Ghant) attempt to woo Bianca by impersonating a tutor. Their courtship depicts a woman with a chance to choose her own husband. (Plus, they get an adorable duet, "Dreamin' of You.") This subplot also requires complicated plot contrivances in which Hortensio's manservant (Daniel May) impersonates his master, and a local drunk (Brad Sherrill) passes for his father, but the labored buildup receives practically no screwball payoff. The play's more contemporary jokes tend to be pure cornball, including Brian Kurlander's "Lucy, you've got some 'splainin' to do!"
Briggs' original songs, co-written with arranger Dennis West, replicate the melodic ease of period-appropriate standards by the likes of George Gershwin or Irving Berlin. They're not very memorable, however, and after the fact, you may find it easier to recall the original tunes they evoke, like "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," than Shrew's own compositions. Shrew: The Musical's overall vibe perfectly suits a sunny romantic comedy, benefiting from Jen MacQueen's choreography and Doug Koertge's costumes — the play's budget for white slacks must be enormous. The original Shrew, however, still casts some shadows over the festivities.