That Old Shakespearean Rag

Review of Kiss Me, Kate at Hartford Stage

Granted, Kiss Me, Kate is, as a play, more silly than shrewd. But then this 1940s’ musical isn’t noted for its Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, but for its music and lyrics by Cole Porter. The vitality and wit of songs like “Too Darn Hot,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “Always True to You in My Fashion” remain undimmed by time, much as does the blank verse of the Bard. Combining both in one show is about as classy as you can get. And that’s what we get: a silly tale of backstage romance and its relation to, onstage, a musical of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—on its opening night in Baltimore—with Porter’s songs to keep things witty.

 Mike McGowan as Fred as Petruchio; Anastasia Barzee as Lilli as Kate

Mike McGowan as Fred as Petruchio; Anastasia Barzee as Lilli as Kate

As a musical about putting on a musical, and as a show about sparring leads—Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee) and Fred Graham (Mike McGowan)—who were once a couple, now playing the shrew Katharine and her roguish suitor Petruchio, Kiss Me, Kate has fun with actors’ egos, theater, musicals, Shakespeare, and the amorous ways of men and women. In this staging it also has director Darko Tresnjak, who scored a Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, showing again his sure hand with flamboyantly fluffy stuff, reunited with members of the Gentleman team, Peggy Hickey, choreographer, Alexander Dodge, scenic designer, and Philip Rosenberg, lighting designer, and with Fabio Toblini, who did such an eye-pleasing job with the costumes for Tresnjak’s production of Bell, Book & Candle. And that means the show is a feast for the eyes and ears.

The somewhat clever conceit of the story is seeing an estranged acting couple patch things up in a comic arc that parallels the story of how Petruchio “tames” the shrew Katharine; meanwhile, the co-star Lois Lane (Megan Sikora), a source of jealousy for Lilli, has a boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes), who signed Fred’s name for his gambling debts, and that brings into the story two comical hoodlums (Brendan Averett and Joel Blum) who, in order to keep an eye on Lilli, get onstage in Shakespearean get-ups. No need to follow the plot too closely, the glory of the story is in the song and dance routines, and Tresnjak and company just keep ‘em coming.

 James T. Lane and company

James T. Lane and company

To keep the various playing areas in play—with backstage, and onstage, and paired dressing-rooms—Dodge’s way with the staging is delightful, and Toblini’s Shakespearean costumes wow in blazing Technicolor. The well-known Porter songs, such as those mentioned above, grace the backstage action, where, sometimes, they’re just added delights with no plot points—such as James T. Lane’s frothy work-up of “Too Darn Hot,” the second act opener that threatens to make us forget all about Shakespearean shenanigans.

But there are some great comic tunes within Taming to divert us, particularly two numbers flaunting naughty fun: Petruchio’s “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” makes the most of Porter’s tongue-in-cheek ribaldry, and the flirty Bianca (Sikora), with Gremio (Barrett Martin), Hortensio (Giovanni Bonaventura), and Lucentio (Tyler Hanes), gives “Tom, Dick or Harry” laughs and memorable moves a-plenty. Another comic highpoint finds the hoods lecturing the guys on the Bard’s seductive use with the girls (“Brush Up on Your Shakespeare). Averett and Blum make the most of the music-hall style comedy of heavies in leotards.

 Anastasia Barzee (Lilli / Kate)

Anastasia Barzee (Lilli / Kate)

Most of the best stuff comes in the second act, with those first three numbers, “Too Darn Hot,” “Where is the Life” and Sikora’s wonderfully fluid rendering of “Always True to You in My Fashion,” whereas the first act is a bit heavy with plot. Still, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” kicks the show off in grand fashion, and Petruchio and Katharine get to make their comical claims with “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “I Hate Men,” respectively. Indeed, the latter is Barzee’s finest moment, finding ways to work a nude male statue to keep viewers’ transfixed. And for those who like ballads, there’s the lovely lilt of “So In Love,” delivered by both Barzee and McGowan separately in each act. Especially good at what they do: McGowan’s ultra-masculine strut and sonorous voice as Fred/Petruchio, Sikora’s vivacious sexiness as Lois/Bianca, some rousing tap-dancing from Hanes and Lane, and vocals from Charity Angél Dawson as Hattie in the opening.

 Megan Sikora as Bianca with suitors

Megan Sikora as Bianca with suitors

All in all, it’s a musical comedy of riches, featuring a judicious use of lines from The Taming of the Shrew to keep in play what T.S. Eliot called “that old Shakespeherian rag—It’s so elegant. So intelligent.” Words that might easily be used to describe the songs of Cole Porter. Together they make a fizzy cocktail of screwball fun.

Kiss Me, Kate
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack

Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Choreography by Peggy Hickey

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Jonathan Deans; Wig Design: Jason Allen; Music Director: Kris Kukul; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Casting: Binder Casting; Associate Music Director: Max Mamon; Production Stage Manager: Anjee Nero; Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda Salmons; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Hartford Stage
May 14-June 14, 2015