Monday, May 25, 2015

Theater Review: Kiss Me Kate -- Hartford Stage

The cast of Kiss Me Kate. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Fresh Staging Fails to Rejuvenate Kiss Me Kate’s Tired Book
By Lauren Yarger
Some of the creatives who teamed to bring us the Tony-Award-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder reunite to bring a well staged production of Kiss me Kate to Hartford Stage. The show itself, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, isn’t a favorite, however, despite the fact that the original production ran for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway and won the first Tony Award for Best Musical.

This co-production with The Old Globe is lovingly directed by Darko Tresnjak with fresh choreography by Peggy Hickey, who along with Set Designer Alexander Dodge (Tony Award nominee); and Lighting Designer Philip Rosenberg filled out the Gentleman’s Guide team. There’s a neat roll into the opening number “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” but the freshness goes stale with the original book (with its less than positive approach to women) from Bella and Samuel Spewack.

Kiss Me Kate is a show within a show. A touring company is getting ready to present a musical production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore (hence all of the multiple roles you see listed below). The show’s leading man, producer, director Fred Graham (delightful baritone Mike McGowan) has reunited with his ex-wife and leading lady Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee) for the run. The couple hates each other (was it her temper or his ego that broke up the marriage?) and trades insults, but just beneath the surface, embers of their passion wait to reignite.
When Fred’s flowers and love note for show-girl mistress Lois Lane (Megan Sikora) erroneously find their way to Lilli’s dressing room, she is agreeable to rekindling their romance, but when the truth comes out, the actress wants out. Some gangsters (well cast and funny Brendan Averett and Joel Blum) enter the picture, having mistaken Fred for Lois’ former dance partner, Bill (Tyler Hanes), who owes their boss a gambling marker of $10,000 and ensure Lilli stays in the production so the box office receipts can be contributed toward the debt. Complicating matters is Lilli’s rebound engagement to politician General Harrison Howell (Tony Lawson).
Action abounds as Hickey dances the cast around Alexander Dodge’s cartoonish, but meticulously detailed set (complete with an unnecessary rotating floor). There’s even some tap. 
But the story….  Sorry, I just can’t get excited about a plot that involves physical abuse (both Lilli and Fred hit each other to such a degree that the services of Fight Director J. Allen Suddeth are needed). Whips are involved at one point.  Even Shakespeare’s plot involves women being sold into marriage against their will. These plots don’t engage me, and I certainly don’t find them entertaining.
Porter’s score, on the other hand, with a 15-member pit orchestra directed by  Kris Kukul, is worth hearing and gives us a chance to sit back and enjoy classic tunes like “Too Darn Hot,” (which is a nice song, but doesn’t have much to do with the plot. . .) “Wunderbar,” “So in Love,” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” where Averett and Blum have a chance to really shine.
Solo voices all are good, with Charity Angel Dawson standing out in the supporting role of as Hattie, Lilli’s maid and confidant (and a featured singer on a couple of the tunes). Blending of voices on chorus numbers sounds just off the note occasionally, however.


Tresnjak said, “I started thinking about directing Kiss Me, Kate in 1990, when the influential album "Red, Hot, and Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter" introduced his smart and sexy music to a whole new generation. After 25 years, I'm thrilled to finally get a chance to direct this supreme entertainment—a piece in which my two great theatrical passions, the plays of William Shakespeare and the American musical theater, come together.”

Kiss Me Kate runs through June 14 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm (special matinee Wednesday, June 2 at 2 pm); Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets: $25-$80; (860) 527-5151; www.hartfordstage.org.

AfterWords Discussion
May 26, June 2 and June 3
Join members of the cast and artistic staff for a free discussion, immediately following select 7:30 performances on Tuesday or the Wednesday matinee free.

Open Captioned Performances, May 31, 2 and 7:30 pm performances for patrons who are deaf or have hearing loss. Free.

Full Cast
Brendan Averett…. Second Man
Anastasia Barzee…. Lilli/Kate
Joel Blum…. First Man
Giovanni Bonaventura…. Hortensio
Robert Hannon Davis…. Ralph
Charity Angel Dawson…. Hattie
Tyler Hanes…. Bill/Lucentio
James T. Lane…. Paul
Tony Lawson…. General Harrison Howell/Stagehand
Barrett Martin…. Gremio
Mike McGowan…. Fred/Petruchio
Wayne W. Pretlow…. Pops/Priest
Megan Sikora…. Lois/Bianca
Michael Starr…. Phillip
Jeff Steitzer…. Harry Trevor/Baptista Minola
Johnny Stellard…. Nathaniel
Robin Masella, Shina Ann Morris, Jane Papageorge…. Dancers

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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