Stellar Production of Kiss Me, Kate at Hartford Stage

By Amy J. Barry

I’ll get right to it. I was blown away by the production of the Cole Porter classic, Kiss Me Kate at Hartford Stage from it’s grand, and I mean grand, opening number, “Another Op’nin, Another Show” to the title song “Kiss Me, Kate” finale. And from the sound of the audience’s delighted laughter, cheers, and applauds on the night we attended, they were, too.

It’s a pleasure to see such an often-produced musical given such an exuberant new life with performances that are so strong on every front -- acting, singing, dancing, sets, lighting, costumes, musical direction, musicians.

Yes, the production team is working with “the best of” Cole Porter music and lyrics and a clever book by Bella and Samuel Spewack in this 1949 Broadway blockbuster. But it is the highly skilled, big picture direction of Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage’s artistic director who brings it all together with such perfect pacing and consistent energy. Tresnjak is on a roll, having won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder -- the last musical he directed at Hartford Stage.

The play-within-a-play melds contemporary musical theater and vintage Shakespeare, in which sexual innuendo abounds with a modern twist. The comedy centers on a touring theater company that’s performing Taming of the Shrew. It moves from backstage to front stage, but along the way the turbulent relationships of two sparring couples filters into the `Shakespeare comedy and the Bard’s passion play influences the off-stage antics, humorously blurring the line between fiction and reality…and fiction.

The leading roles are played by Anastasia Barzee as Lilli Vanessi (Kate in Taming of the Shrew) , and Mike McGowan as her ex-husband Fred Graham, director, producer, actor (Petruchio in Taming...).

A romantic relationship begins to rekindle between the two prima donnas. But flowers mistakenly delivered to Lilli from Fred that were really meant for the company’s ambitious seductress Lois Lane (Bianca in Taming of the Shrew ), played by Megan Sikora, stirs up the comedy of errors and hot-tempered, high-spirited retaliation that ensues. Add to the mix Lois’s boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Lucentio in Taming...), played by Tyler Hanes, a high stakes gambler who, after gambling away a bundle of money, forges Fred’s signature on an IOU.

Barzee’s performance as Lilli starts out too broad and hammed-up, but as her very demanding performance evolves, she becomes less of a caricature. She sings a sultry “So in Love,” reprised by McGowan as Fred in Act II, that’s exquisite.

McGowan is clearly the star voice of the production with his powerhouse, operatic baritone, also showcased in the lighthearted  “Wunderbar” with Barzee, the beautiful “Where is the Life that Late I Led?” and the romantic, mamba-style “Were Thine That Special Face.”

Sikora is terrific as the fiery redhead Lois. She has two standout performances: leading the seductive, toe tapping “Tom, Dick or Harry” and the bluesy, up-tempo “Always True to You in My Fashion.”

James T. Lane as Paul brings the ensemble to a full boil leading the signature song, “Too Darn Hot” with his energetic dancing and smooth vocals.

Even more comic relief is offered by two gun-wielding gangsters, referred to as First Man (Joel Blum) and Second Man (Brendan Averett). Out to collect the gambling debt from Fred, set up by Bill, they end up embedded in Taming of the Shrew  in ridiculous costumes, spewing malapropisms. They sing the engaging “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

Big applause for Peggy Hickey’s fabulous choreography. The multi-layered dance numbers are riveting. There is no one in the background doing predictable fill-in moves. The dancers are all in perfect sync, while also each moving in uniquely expressive ways.

Alexander Dodge’s scenic design is an ambitious and complex construct that adds to the whimsical quality of the production while clearly delineating the industrial backstage from the exuberant, colorful onstage scenes. Tall towers magically appear on either side of the stage during Taming of the Shrew with actors popping out of windows…and a nude male statue center stage acts as vehicle for many off-color jokes. The set rotates to reveal Lilli’s and Fred’s side-by-side dressing rooms.

Costumes both sexy and absurdly silly by Fabio Toblini kick-up the production, as does Philip S. Rosenberg’s distinctive, tone-setting lighting.

A hardworking, imaginative cast and crew does great justice to Cole Porter and his “smart and sexy music,” to quote Tresnjak about the score of this marvelous musical.

Kiss Me Kate is a co-production with The Old Globe in San Diego. The musical comedy is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., downtown Hartford, through June 14. For tickets and performance schedule, visit www.hartfordstage.com or call 860-525-5601.

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.



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