If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

“Kiss Me Kate” in Hartford Stage Revival

Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak‘s last musical offering was “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” which premiered at his theatre last season and then transferred to Broadway where it wowed the Tony Awards winning “Best Musical” and “Best Director”. Mr. Tresnjak is back with a revival this time, Cole Porter’s backstage musical “Kiss Me Kate”, and there is plenty to like here.

Based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” with book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, “Kiss Me Kate” finds divorced acting couple Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee) and Fred Graham (Mike McGowan) attempting (and failing miserably) to remain civil in a third-rate tour of the Bard’s battle-of-the-sexes comedy. At Hartford the production is lavish and loud and also a tad sophomoric. I never recall so many penis references as there seem to be in this revival. But Tresnjak has certainly kept things lively and, with his game cast, “Kiss Me Kate” is rarely dull.

The openings of both acts of the musical are first-rate show-stoppers. Charity Angel Dawson welcomes audiences with a vibrant “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” as the talented company behind her comes to life and deliver the magic of backstage theatre up front and personal. It’s a glorious way to open the show. The excitement continues at the top of act two when a sizzling rendition of “Too Darn Hot”, led by the dynamic James T. Lane, does full justice to Peggy Hickey’s exuberant, breathless choreography. Yes, the Cole Porter music is still as winning as ever and, truth be told, remains the best part of what has always been a rather problematic musical.

Mr. McGowan, however, is all one would want in a leading man. Preening and egotistically hilarious throughout, the actor’s impressive vocal chops never disappoint in such great songs as “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “Where is the Life That Late I Led?”. He also duets splendidly with Miss Barzee in the melodic “Wunderbar” and she, in turn, gets more laughs than the law should allow with “I Hate Men”. The secondary romantic couple played by Megan Sikora and Tyler Hanes are nicely matched for the delicious “Why Can’t You Behave” and Sikora impresses in “Always True to You in My Fashion” and “Tom, Dick or Harry”. The always popular “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, with Brendan Averett and Joel Blum playing a pair of thugs who catch the acting bug, is priceless, with each of their encores generating eager applause.

Tresnjak’s design team remains aces with scenery (Alexander Dodge), costumes (Fabio Toblini) and lighting (Philip S. Rosenberg) all in top form once again. I wish the direction did a tad less with some of the numbers (the penis references return too often) and the final scene didn’t seem to pack the punch that a lovers’ reunion should have. Still, for frothy fun at a high level, you could do far worse than see this very polished revival.

“Kiss Me Kate” continues at Hartford Stage through June 14. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


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