Kiss Me, Kate – Review by Tom Nissley

Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” is a confusing replay of “The Taming of the Shrew” that takes place during a try-out performance in Ford’s Theater in Baltimore circa 1945. Producer Fred Graham (David Sattler) and his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi (Mary McNulty) are supposed to be starring together in this show, but they have a hard time figuring out if they really can’t stand each other or… might still be in love. And that’s the gist of the plot.

But nothing is that simple when you’re dealing with Cole Porter songs. The show opens with a favorite: “Another Opening, Another Show,” led by James Robert IV and Melissa Victor – two great vocalists – and the whole company singing and dancing, magnificently. There’s also some posing by the leads. Lilli plays haughty from the beginning, and so does Fred Graham.

But how’s the chance to introduce Lois Lane (Rachel MacIsaac) and her boyfriend Bill (Tim Falter). They are both terrific dancers. Really terrific dancers. And MacIsaac has persona plus. Lois is an outrageous flirt. That drives Bill crazy. Bill is an outrageous gambler. That drives Lois crazy. Bill has sneaked away and lost $10,000 gambling and signed an IOU with Fred Graham’s name. So: another song. “Why can’t you behave?” Lois promises to be there for Bill but wishes he would reform.

Fred and Lilli get to their adjoining dressing rooms. They spend a few minutes sparring and then replay a memory of another show they were in when they were first in love. They sing “Wunderbar,” a lovely ballad about gazing at the Alps. It has nothing to do with Shakespeare or “the Taming of the Shrew.” It is there to help us understand that they could still have sweet feelings for each other.

Now two things happen. Fred has been flirting with Lois. He sends her flowers that accidentally get delivered to Lilli. Lilli is thrilled. Fred gets worried, since the note with them says ‘Lois.’  And, just before curtain-up, two gentlemen collectors (Brett Alters and Brian Silliman) have stopped by to see Mr. Graham about how to get paid. He knows nothing about it, but they have a signed note that says he owes them $10,000. They promise to stick around.

“The Taming of the Shrew” begins. The four leads arrive by donkey cart. And we are in Padua, at the house of Baptista (Bradley Mott). Hortensio (a beautifully frenzied Nicholas Cochetto) and Gremio (an adorably flexible Cole Francum) join Lucentio (Falter) in a spectacular round dance singing – “Marry Me!” – begging for the hand of Bianca (MacIsaac), who wants to be married but cannot until Kate (McNulty) has been married before her. But Kate is NOT desirable. Her anger is legendary. To prove it she sings “I hate men!” with a vengeance that sends the men in the town square running.

Soon Petruchio (Sattler) arrives, bragging that he has come to find wealth and a woman. The men tell him about Kate. He strikes a bargain with her father. But just about then Lilli opens the note she thought was for her, and discovers it was written to Lois. Whoops. When she returns to the stage she has fire from her nostrils and she holds the open note to signal Fred that war is happening. Right now. The next scene between them gets physical as she kicks and slaps at him and finally he puts her over his knee and paddles her. The company sings “Amore” – ‘to love’ – and continues with Fred urging her to “Kiss Me Kate” but that is not in the cards now.

When she gets offstage, Lilli calls her new admirer, General Howell (Luke Lynch), who is in Washington (at the White House) and begs him to come and rescue her tonight. She wants to marry him and leave the theater, leave her nasty ex-husband stranded, and get into a new gig as the General’s wife.

Meanwhile the play continues. Although Lilli is packing to leave, the two bill collectors confront Fred asking how he will repay his loan. When he tells them that Lilli wants to leave, they are pressed into service to keep her in the play, and they put on costumes. The next scene is at Petruchio’s house, where as it happens, the food is not to his liking, her new clothes are not to his liking, and the idea of the marital bed is not to her liking. Petruchio sings a sad song about his bachelor past and how it’s over. He sleeps on the great room table. But he plans to take Kate back to Padua.

But Lilli does leave, with the General, and as the next scene opens in Padua, Fred is convinced that she won’t return. Imagine his happy surprise when she does, just in time to contritely sing “I am ashamed that women are so simple.” The whole company rejoices with a reprise of “Kiss Me Kate.” What’s meant to be important here is that Lilli and Fred have patched up their differences and are in love once again.

Somewhere in the second act we discover that the man to whom Fred theoretically owed $10,000 has been executed in a mob mix-up, and the two gentlemen collectors are dismissed. They are back in street clothes, but before they leave, they entertain the audience with a fabulous (!) rendition of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” a major highlight of the show. Watching it – loving it – one gets an idea of how complicated it is to pull in a cast for “Kiss Me Kate.” The routine has nothing to do with the plot, but everything to do with the crazy musical built around it. Alters and Silliman are superbly cast for this slapstick piece and deserve every bit of praise they get for it, including sure nominations for best supporting actors.

That also is true for other members of the ensemble, whose stylized movements and dancing should earn a nomination for best choreography for Doug Shankman. Hearing Grant Benedict open “That’s Amore” or watching Zach Shayne or Joey Lucherini in their beautifully structured moves as “Shrew…” is played leads to a full appreciation of Allegra Libonati’s dexterity in directing “Kiss Me Kate” and how much bigger the whole production is than just the fighting between Fred and Lilli.

What else should you know? Basically, the set (Julia Noulin-Merat) works well and is handsome. The statues in the town square don’t quite deliver, and the donkey cart is cumbersome. Devon Allen’s lighting is excellent in most of the scenes. Arthur Oliver’s costumes work well.

The musical direction (Kenneth Gartman) of the live but invisible orchestra is magnificent, and the quality of the voices by the whole company is superb. Doug Shankman’s choreography, strictly original to this production in every scene, is just over the top! Teamwork shines.

I liked it. I recommend it. Tickets and information are available at  Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre.