By Karen Isaacs
Combine one of the classic musicals of all times — Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate — and a Tony-winning director — Darko Tresnjak — and you can expect a wonderful evening at the theater. Your expectations are not misplaced in this Hartford Stage production that runs through June 14.
Now, I did have a few quibbles, more in the vocal area than any other, but overall I was delighted.
When Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics for this piece in 1948, many considered him “washed up” and unable to adapt to the new world of musicals heralded by Rodgers and Hammerstein. His earlier shows had been light on plot and often more like revues than the new “integrated” musicals.
In Kiss Me, Kate he showed the naysayers how wrong they were. Not only are the songs fully integrated into the plot but they display a variety of approaches for operetta-ish to comic to jazzy. Of course, we should also give credit to Bella and Samuel Spewack who wrote the book or libretto.
The show combines backstage shenanigans with a production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the problematic comedy about a shrewish woman subdued by her husband.
The show opens backstage as the company prepares for opening night in Baltimore where we soon meet the principal performers: Fred Graham who is attempting a comeback playing Petruchio, his ex-wife, the movie star Lilli Vanessi who will play Kate, as well as Bill Calhoun and Lois Lane, a nightclub team picked to play Lucentio and Bianca.
Soon the complications begin. Bill is a gambler who has forged Fred’s name on an IOU; Lilli and Fred reminisce and spar though she is involved with a mysterious man; Lois seems to be having a fling with Fred. So we are set for intrigue and jealousies.
Interspersed with the backstage events are scenes from the Shakespeare play which involves a father who will not let his younger daughter (Bianca) wed until his older daughter (Kate) does so. Unfortunately, Kate views most men as fools and is willing to control everyone with her bad temper. Among Bianca’s suitors is Lucentio whose friend Petruchio arrives from Padua with the goal of obtaining a wealthy wife. Who better than Kate which would free Bianca to wed? The unwilling Kate is wed and Petruchio plots a way to “tame her.”
Backstage, Lilli’s jealousy over Fred’s attentions to Lois causes her to quit the production, but she is prevented by two gangsters who have arrived to collect on the IOU. Though Fred initially denies it is his, he soon realizes they will help him keep Lilli in the show at least through the week.
The two settings — Italy centuries ago and 1940s United States — permitted Porter a wide range of musical choices of which he takes full advantage.
In the backstage numbers we have Broadway jazz and nightclub style songs — from “Why Can’t You Behave?” to “Another Openin’, Another Show” and the classic “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” During the Taming of the Shrew portions of the show, the songs are more classic from “I’ve Come to Wife it Wealthily in Padua” to “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” but even here he throws in some more modern numbers — “Tom, Dick or Harry,” and “Bianca.” And Porter does not leave all the romantic ballads on stage — backstage we have “Wunderbar” and “So in Love.”
Tresjnak has taken a fresh approach to the show. In the “Shrew” portions of the show, he has played up many of the Shakespearean double entendres and emphasized the Elizabethan and commedia dell’arte sexual innuendo of the dialogue and lyrics. Even the setting by Alexander Dodge features a large nude male statue holding a triton that at certain angles is very suggestive.
Tresjnak with musical director Kris Kukul has adjusted some of the tempos of the numbers and varied from the standard interpretations.
The opening — “Another Openin’ Another Show” — does not start out as a up tempo number but begins more slowly as various cast and crew members assemble and greet each other on the bare stage. It slowly builds to the upbeat theater hymn that most of us remember. He does this with other numbers as well: Kate’s “I Hate Men” has an element of humor in that makes us realize she is not totally against the masculine sex.
It is this creativity that gives this Kiss Me, Kate a flair and a originality. Even the vision of Lilli’s suitor adds a touch of humor: General Harrison Howell definitely references General Douglas MacArthur.
Choreographer Peggy Hickey has combined elements of Broadway dance from the period and beyond including suggestions from the work of Michael Kidd and Bob Fosse. The latter actually appeared in the MGM film version of the show.
Overall the cast is excellent. Megan Sikora as Lois Lane/Bianca stole the show. She brought energy, humor and terrific singing and dancing to the part. Her counterpart — Bill Calhoun/Lucentio, played by Tyler Hanes has less to do and seemed at times to fade into the background. Sometimes I confused him with Bianca’s other two suitors.
The two leads — Anastasia Barzee as Lillie Vanessi/Kate and Mike McGowan as Fred Graham/Petruchio had strengths and weaknesses. Barzee’s voice tended to more vibrato than was necessary which made it feel as though she was straining to sound “operatic”. McGowan has a large voice but it seemed to lack the romantic tone that the part at times requires. He was also cursed with a hairstyle that was not particularly attractive. But aside from those quibbles they did develop chemistry — you felt the push-pull of a divorced couple who still cared for each other but perhaps cannot live with each other.
Charity Angel Dawson was excellent as Hattie — Lilli’s dresser and Joel Blum and Brendan Averett are hilarious as the two gangsters.
Alexander Dodge has created an authentic backstage area and made the “Shrew” set reflective of a 1940s production. Fabio Toblini’s costumes again bridge the gap.
This may not be the greatest production of Kiss Me, Kate but with its creative touches it is one that is thoroughly enjoyable. It is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through June 14. For tickets contact Hartford Stage