"Kiss Me, Kate"

by Stu Brown

The tuneful melodies from composer Cole Porter’s most triumphant musical, Kiss Me, Kate, are receiving a mostly spirited production at Hartford Stage. All the ingredients for an entertaining show are present -- a talented cast with beautiful singing voices, a cavalcade of memorable songs and red-hot dance numbers, but the pacing is slightly askew. This causes the production to drag occasionally when it should pop; lag instead of totally captivate.

Based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me, Kate is a show within a show. Onstage, a theater troupe, led by the philandering and egotistical Fred Graham (Mike McGowan) and his former leading lady and ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee), are breaking in a new musical during out-of-town tryouts in Baltimore. Off-stage, the twosome bicker, squabble and battle it out just like their onstage characters. Complicating matters is the gambling problem of hoofer Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes) and the adverse affects they produce, girlfriend Lois Lane’s (Megan Sikora) wandering eye and a couple of lovable thugs.

Book writers Sam and Bella Spewack have created a story that is both amusing and engaging. The believability factor takes a back seat, but the plot is well-crafted and satisfying.

Cole Porter’s score for the show contains so many enduring classics, beginning with the musical’s opening number, the enthralling “Another Op’nin, Another Show.” From there, in succession, audiences are treated to “Why Can’t You Behave,” “Wunderbar,” and “So in Love” and Act I is still only half way over. Act II starts with the scintillating “Too Darn Hot” and includes the great comic number “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Backing up the luscious songs and strong singing voices is a large orchestra, rare for a regional production. Their musicianship adds a sheen of luster and vitality to Porter’s output.

The cast is led by Mike McGowan in the dual role of Fred Graham/Petruchio and Anastasia Barzee as Lilli Vanessi/Kate. Both, seasoned performers, are appealing and clearly having fun with their roles. Their combative relationship is as believable as their still flickering feelings for one another. The show’s secondary couple, led by Tyler Hanes as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio and Megan Sikora as Lois Lane/Bianca, are energetic and sprightly. Hanes is a great rogue and Sikora a bewitching tease. James T. Lane, who plays Graham’s longtime dresser, is dazzling during his moments on the dance floor. Joel Blum and Brendan Averett are charmingly appealing as the two gangsters looking to collect a debt. In addition to the featured players, the ensemble is comprised of an outstanding group of actors and actresses who really add sizzle to the show.

Director Darko Trenjak, spearheading his first musical since last year’s Tony Award winning Best Musical, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, has full command of the production. The musical looks good and, for the most part, glides along smoothly. For some reason the non-musical portions of Kiss Me, Kate don’t always click, which creates slightly sluggish scenes. Also, not to be too prudish, but the sexual overtones he emphasizes in some portions of the show might be off-putting for parents bringing kids to the production.

The choreography by Peggy Hickey is one of the stars of the musical. Dance plays a joyful role in this production of Kiss Me, Kate. From the very start, with “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” Hickey tantalizes the audience with graceful movements and rollicking, toe-tapping numbers. This is thoroughly exemplified in the opening of Act II with “Too Darn Hot.” Actor James T. Lane, joined by the superb ensemble, dances up a storm as they lament the backstage heat. Megan Sikora’s frisky exuberance through “Always True to You in My Fashion” is another highlight.

Kiss Me, Kate at Hartford Stage through June 14th.

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