Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate at New Milford’s TheatreWorks

David Begelman

Cole Porter was one of those composers who could take distasteful traits in scripted characters and turn them into something amusing and memorable. His highly successful musical Kiss Me Kate is just such a vehicle.

Kiss Me Kate is, after all, about an egotistical actor, Fred Graham, who is divorced from his wife, Lilli Vanessi. He still loves her, although he has a wandering eye for other women. He sends flowers to Lois Lane that mistakenly get delivered to Lilli. But Lois has a crush on a forger and small-time gambler, Bill Calhoun, who is incapable of reforming. (One of her show stoppers is the lament, “Why Can’t You Behave?”) Except Lois has her own behavior problems. She can warm up to men pell-mell when they come on strong with tantalizing offers, although she assures Bill she is always true to him—in her own way. To get cash, Bill signs Fred’s name on an I.O.U. to a gangster who dispatches two thugs to shake down Fred. He is the lead in a show based upon Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

Fred had better come up with the dough or have his fingers broken. When Lilli discovers that her ex-husband has sent the flowers to Lois rather than her, she threatens to leave the show, only to be prevented from bolting by the two hitmen. Dressing in drag, they cast themselves in the show to keep an eye on things, lest it fold. This would jeopardize the investment that represents their payback. Relief from the two underworld characters only comes when their mob boss is wacked, letting Fred off the hook.   

Kiss Me Kate ran for more performances on Broadway than any of Cole Porter’s other works, and garnered many awards for its rousing musical numbers and book by Bella and Samuel Spewack. Even these two got into the felonious spirit of things—this time, through plagiarism. Many of the lines in the show are filched from Shakespeare’s play. If only to update the pilfering, Fred is not above quoting from Noel Coward’s Private Lives: “Women should be struck regularly like gongs,” a quip that is hardly P. C. by today’s standards. So the down and dirty are everywhere in sight in this musical, but who cares? The show is a sheer delight, from beginning to end.

In case you missed it, one of the best choreographers this side of George Balanchine, Bob Fosse, dances in the 1953 film version of the show, wowing them as one of the three suitors of Bianca, Kate’s sister, in the number “Tom, Dick or Harry.”

Director Bradford Blake’s customarily deft hand is everywhere in sight in the New Milford TheatreWork’s production of the show. This is especially so in his directing of many of the show’s group musical numbers like, “Another Op’nin,’ Another Show,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Were Thine That Special Face,” (staged balletically, with chorus girls switching into a Busby Berkeley-type routine, with ostrich feather fans!). Even the immensely popular number of the two gangsters, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” contained some genuinely innovative touches not seen in other renditions of the song.

Mr. Blake is even given to original placements of the musical accompaniment. In last season’s stunning production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, the orchestra was placed above the audience in the back of the theater. In Kiss Me Kate, we find it high above the backstage wall, and conducted capably by Arnie Gross. Mr. Blake’s reluctance to place musicians in the pit may represent a personal quirk, but his choices work well in whatever project he undertakes.

Unfortunately, cast singing frequently did not always seem up to par in their roles. Tom Sheehan as Fred Graham/Petruchio cut an attractive figure on stage, although his singing tended to be strained in the higher registers, or else gave out in longer numbers. Priscilla Squiers as Lilli Vanessi/Kate also had some vocal problems despite her considerable stage charisma, while her curly red Shirley Temple wig seemed somewhat out of character for the virago who had to be tamed.

Shannon-Courtney Porper as Lois Lane/Bianca belted more consistently, although her singing ability overshadowed her acting.

Tom Denihan as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio seemed afflicted with a tendency to mug or become manneristic in his role, while Steve Michelsson as Hortensio and Billy Hicks as Gremio made lackluster contributions in the capacity of lesser characters.

Harry Trevor as Baptista, Kate’s father, provided some humorous moments as a frustrated parent, while Trisha Carr, Janina Reiner, and Kimberley Sanders were an attractive threesome as dancers in the chorus.

Jeff  Porper and Mark Felch received ovations for their number “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and their Mutt and Jeff physical appearance as the two mobsters added to the comedic aspect of this most hilarious soft-shoe moment of the show.

At the end of the show, Lilli unexpectedly returns onstage to a surprised Fred Graham. The two are reunited, as are Lois and Bill. The gangsters drop their gig to return their boss’s dough or else rough up Fred, and everyone lives happily ever after. All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare himself observed—mostly in theater musicals, as it turns out.

Kiss Me Kate opened at New Milford’s TheatreWorks, 5 Brookside Avenue, New Milford, CT 06776, on September 25 and closes October 24 at 8:00 PM. There are Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM on October 4, 11, and 18. Tickets are $28 for reserved seating, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 860.350.6863 or online at www.theatreworks.us.  

 

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