Kiss Me, Kate
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Sam and Bella Spewack
Directed by John R. Leffert
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents copyright © 2017 Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
As the proverbial curtain rises on the bare bones stage, save for a moving wall and the Ghost Light, a bustle of nervous energy emerges with the well-known “Another Op’nin, Another Show”. If you are familiar with working in touring companies and/or stage at all, you know the not so tongue-in-cheek appeal of this show opener. Stagehands, the stage manager, wardrobe persons, and the actors themselves come on stage to talk about their excitement and misgivings of theater. We, the audience, get a sneak peek at what the evening has in store for us. I’m happy to say it was delightful.
If you are not familiar with this Broadway hit, let me catch you up. Perhaps one of Cole Porter’s best-known works, Kiss Me, Kate is the backstage story of a contentious theatre company and their antics as they prepare to present a stylized, musical version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
Producer Fred Graham (Josh Gilliam), who will portray male lead of Petruchio, has assembled a rag-tag group of actors for this production that includes: a gambler, Bill Calhoun (Lars Hafell) who portrays Lucentio, the very flirtatious Lois Lane (Emma Rhodes) who portrays Bianca. The shocker of the casting would be in the hiring of his ex-wife, former Broadway star, Lilli Vanessi (Shannon Speicher) who will portray Katherine Minola.
As the show is beginning to start, Bill shares with Lois that he has lost all of their money and that he owes a $10,000 on top of it. In an effort to shake him clear of this debt he signs the IOU under a different name. The winsome couple shares their dislike for each other’s character flaws with “Why Can’t You Behave”, but realize those flaws are what make them the couple they are.
Tempers are masked, yet still visible as we watch Fred and Lilli in preparation of going on stage. Some of the best passive-aggressive lines of theater can be found within this couple’s dialogue, strung throughout the show. As the two calm down a bit and reminisce about their past with the sweet “Wunderbar”, they embrace and share a moment that breaks the wall down a bit.
The curtain rises and The Taming of the Shrew begins. For the most part the show follows the same course of Shakespeare’s play, with much of the same dialogue, but this is Cole Porter, so there is some fantastic music thrown in. “Tom, Dick or Harry” is a fun little romp and played up by Bianca and her three suitors: Gremio (Zac Holman), Hortensio (Tyler Rosenblatt), and Lucentio.
At a scene break we are back stage again and Lilli has learned that the flowers that she was sent by Fred were actually not intended for her, but for Lois. Backstage again we see Lilli fuming and threatening to leave, having just called her fiancé, General Harrison Howell (Isaiah Hein), to come and get her right away. Meanwhile, Fred is visited by two gangsters (Daniel Price and Marc McHone) who have come to collect the IOU signed with Fred’s signature. Fred insists that he was not the signee, however, if the thugs were able to convince Lilli to stay with the show through the end of the week, he would make good on the debt. Through the flash of a gun the two convince Lilli to stay.
When Lilli tries to convince the General that she is being held there against her will, he dismisses her and insists that they plan the wedding. Fred tries to tell Lilli that she is making a mistake (“So In Love Reprise”) and to stay, but is unsuccessful as she leaves the theater with her dresser Hattie (Tymika Prince).
CenterStage has a way of bringing in some great talent and this production surely has its fair share. Despite some inconsistencies in singing and choreography, the principles and supporting cast were entertaining and fun.
A couple of players that I have not mentioned were pleasant surprises: Cody Dale as the Stage Manager and Alfred Jones, Jr. as Paul, Fred’s dresser. Mr. Dale has a great stage presence and a great timing, not to mention he is a pretty good whistler. Mr. Jones’ had the joint jumping with his Act II opening of “Too Darn Hot”, which was pretty darn near perfect.
Mr. Hafell was another surprise. While he has a delightful voice, he isn’t a bad hoofer, either. Ms. Rhodes’ Lois was everything I would expect from a woman willing to do whatever it takes to make it to the Great White Way.
While Mr. McHone and Mr. Price lost their way a little bit on “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, they handled it with charm and sincerity. Mr. Gilliam was most pleasant as Fred/Petruchio, blending the two to a point that you couldn’t tell where one ended and one began, which is exactly what you want. I do want to mention that while Mr. Gilliam did quite admirably with his singing (such as his “Where’s the Life That Late I Lead”), there were times in his lower register that he was struggling a bit, and perhaps to remember that when wearing a microphone you don’t have to push the higher register as far either.
Another pleasant surprise was the introduction of Ms. Speicher to the Louisville Theater community. It was evident that she had studied music (a fellow Northwestern alum in fact) and has a rich operatic timbre. Despite having a great range, the singing was a little uneven in the beginning, but she rallied and recovered with her rendition of “I Hate Men”.
Costumes were spot on and visually appealing. Staging was appropriate for the play, despite some lags in moving the larger props/fixtures.
The musical ensemble, under the direction of Angie Renae Hopperton, was enough for the space and the orchestration, but the horns seemed to struggle a little at times. Not too badly, mind you, but I noticed.
There is certainly not a lot of female empowerment in this musical. But, as this was written in a different time, well a couple of different times, things have certainly changed since then.
Kiss Me. Kate
July 6-23, 2017 @ 7:30pm
$20-$22 in Advance
$22-$24 at the Door
CenterStage at JCC
3600 Dutchman’s Lane
Louisville, KY 40205
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.