A Comical 'Kate'
You don't have to "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," as the memorable song in the musical "Kiss Me, Kate" suggests, to enjoy the TheatreWorks New Milford production. With music and lyrics by the legendary Cole Porter and book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, "Kiss Me, Kate," is a crafty and comical look at what happens behind the scenes of a production of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," with a beautifully costumed and incredibly talented cast, creative set design and an orchestra directed by Broadway's Arnie Gross.
Director and choreographer Bradford Blake's vision for this production is full of slapstick and physical comedy, the perfect setting for a toe-tapping, knee-slapping battle of the sexes. There is no question the talent on and off stage is of the region's highest caliber, but there is more than a battle of the sexes occurring on the New Milford stage, and it is, unfortunately, between the orchestra and the performers on stage. While this detracts from some of the show's more humorous and heartfelt musical moments, TheatreWorks' "Kiss Me, Kate," features inspired performances by TheatreWorks stalwarts and newcomers alike.
The classic musical comedy is pure TheatreWorks fodder, using one of Shakespeare's best known comedies as its base, with the illustrious Cole Porter penning an unforgettable score. Fittingly, it uses one of Shakespeare's favorite narrative devices-a play within a play.
Based on William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," the show revolves around shrill and shrewish actress Lilli Vanessi (Priscilla Squiers), and womanizer Fred Graham (Tom Sheehan). The formerly married couple had an anything but amicable divorce. Theirs was a constant clash of personalities, but the fates have forced a reunion as they star in a new musical version of "The Taming of the Shrew"-she as the shrewish Katherine and he as bachelor Petruchio.
Their altercations onstage as Katherine and Petruchio are nothing compared to the offstage antics-love affairs, backstage brawls, mistaken identities and a handful of hilarious misunderstandings. Lilli is engaged to Washington power player Harrison Howell (a hilarious Jonathan Ross whose appearance and Southern drawl are reminiscent of former president George W. Bush), while slick and sly Fred is smitten with Lois Lane (Shannon-Courtney Porper), who portrays the show's flirty Bianca. Further complicating this love triangle, Lois is the object of affection of fellow actor and irresponsible gambler Bill Calhoun (Tom Denihan), who portrays Lucentio in "Shrew."
"Kiss Me, Kate," unravels like a back-and-forth volley between the staging of "The Taming of the Shrew" and behind-the-scenes hijinks between several couples and a pair of hilarious "Godfather"-esque gangsters, setting the stage for uproarious musical comedy. Can Fred and Lilli avoid beating the hell out of each other long enough to make it to the final curtain? Only time will tell.
TheatreWorks' "Kiss Me, Kate," is full of talent. Tom Sheehan and Priscilla Squiers have remarkable chemistry on stage as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Katherine, their backstage tussles often spilling onto the stage in "Shrew." Mr. Sheehan's Fred is the perfect mix of sly machismo as he works through a most difficult of circumstance with an ex who is less-than thrilled to be starring opposite him. While Mr. Sheehan has a lovely baritone voice, Ms. Squiers belts out one of the show's highlights, "I Hate Men," injecting the number with an ample dose of humor and feminism. She is as fiery as her red tresses.
Also commanding the stage is Shannon-Courtney Porper as Lois/Bianca in her bawdy number, "Tom, Dick or Harry." Ms. Porper captures the essence this flirty actress wonderfully opposite Mr. Sheehan's Fred and Tom Denihan's unfortunate gambler/actor Bill. This is the actress' TheatreWorks debut and what a debut it is.
Stealing the show are Jeff Porper and Mark Feltch as gangster thugs who demand full payment of an I.O.U. They have the wrong guy, but their antics and their incorporation into "Shrew"-in drag-elicits the most uproarious laughter of the evening. But the spotlight truly shines on them during their show-stopping number "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," a witty, side-splitting performance that warrants every chuckle and guffaw it elicits. It's one of those numbers that has you begging for more.
A supporting ensemble featuring Jonathan Ross, Ron Dukenski, Janice Gabriel, Brad Kimmelman, Matthew Farina, Steve Michelsson, Billy Hicks, Trisha Carr, Kim Sanders and Janina Reiner, round out the production with clever humor and boundless talent, bringing the love story full circle.
Setting the stage for the period are beautiful costumes by costume mistress Renee C. Purdy and a creative and diverse two-story set by Glenn R. Couture that transitions backstage dressing rooms into Padua for "Shrew" so effortlessly, the audience is rarely sitting in the dark during set changes. As inventive as the design is, it may be the root of the show's one problem-the fray between the orchestra and the performers' vocals.
It seems logical to have the orchestra in front of the audience. "Kiss Me, Kate" is, after-all, a backstage-comedy in which much of the action occurs behind the scenes. The placement of the orchestra where it is emphasizes the fact that we are watching a play within a play. But it becomes problematic, the audience straining to hear what is being sung on stage.
Despite this musical mishap, TheatreWorks' "Kiss Me, Kate," offers plenty of merriment and mirth, satirical silliness and music of the stuck-in-your-head hummable variety that provides laughter for the whole family.