The Thugs Steal the Show in New Milford' "Kiss Me Kate"
Kiss Me Kate is frequently lauded as one of the all time great American musicals. The reason for this is simply the fact that Cole Porter wrote the words and music for the 18 numbers that mate the show. Porter was a genius, whose clever wit and catchy melodies pervade a wide range of songs. The show affords a marvelous opportunity for talented performers to strut their stuff, and when a top notch group like TheatreWorks New Milford mounts a musical on their tiny stage, they do it up grand!
Like shows from Forty-Second Street to Noises Off, Kiss Me Kate falls into the "backstage" genre, focusing on the trials and tribulations of theater people. The unique twist in Kate is the extent to, which the lives of the characters mirror the play they are performing.
Company director, actor and supreme egotist Fred Graham is in Baltimore, staging a week of out-of-town previews of a revival of Shakespeare's comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. In addition to producing and. directing, Graham will assume the lead role of Petruchio, the gentleman from Verona who has "come to wive it: wealthily in Padua," where, he hopes to win a fortune by marrying the beautiful but terrible tempered Katherine, daughter of Baptista, a local rich man who has vowed to give half his fortune to any man who will take the shrew off his hands, so that her sweet younger sister Bianca, will be free to marry as well.
Co-starring with Graham will be his fiery ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi. Their modern-day squabbles form a perfect counterpoint to the onstage battle between the implacable Petruchio and the haughty Katherine. In addition, Lois Lane, who plays Bianca, is flirting with every man in sight while she remonstrates with her fiancé Bill Calhoun (who plays Bianca's favored suitor).
A compulsive gambler, Bill has lost a huge sum of money at a poker game, and signed an IOU with Graham's name. Thus two Damon Runyonesque gangsters show up to collect… or else. When Lilli threatens to quit the show, Graham tells them that, the only way there will ever be any money to collect is if the show goes on for the full complement of performances, with its female star where she belongs. To ensure Miss Vanessi's compliance, the two thugs don Renaissance costumes and infiltrate the chorus, gaining her cooperation by showing her a large pistol. Guess what happens!
No, you don't need to. The whole point of going, to the show is to see what a wonderful job they have done with it. Bradford Blake is well known as a hugely talented, director, and he is at his best here. Priscilla Squires demonstrates both her lush voice and her considerable dramatic abilities in the part of Lilli/Katherine, tossing her head and flouncing wickedly, but succumbing by turns to fear and loving memories.
Shannon-Courtney Porper has an equally beautiful voice in the comic role of Lois/Bianca. Tom Sheehan, who showed his dramatic skills over in Ridgefield as the wistful pederast Uncle Peck in How I Learned to Drive, is completely different here as the egotistical impresario Graham, and Tom Denihan lends a sort of Jack Nicholson bad boy cockiness to the role of Miss Lane's fiancé, Bill Calhoun. The chorus is terrific, with choreography that dominates the small stage. Matthew Farinak, Steve Michelsson, Billy Hicks, Trisha Carr, Janina Reiner and Kimberly Sanders sing and dance with spirited abandon.
The show is absolutely stolen by Mark Feltch and Jeff Porper as the two thugs, however. Long before gangsta rap, became trendy Cole Porter wrote "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," and when these two do their song and dance number, about how being able to discuss Shakespeare will enable you to be socially acceptable and impress the ladies, the audience would be happy to have them go on for hours. And then there are all those wonderful Cole Porter songs — "Another Op'nin, Another Show, "Wunderbar" We Open in Venice" (the next stop Verona...) "I Hate Men," "Why Can't You Behave," "Too Darn Hot," "Always True to You Darlin' (In my Fashion)" and "Bianca," just to name a few. They're all catchy and clever and charming.
Personally I don't believe that Kiss Me Kate really is one of the greatest American musicals. The truly great ones — like West Side Story or Man of La Mancha or Fiddler on the Roof, or Carousel combine wonderful music and dancing with a recognition of the darker side of human existence. With Kate, there is no violence or suffering or death in this show, to cast a shadow on the star crossed lovers. In that sense, Kate is more of a throw back to its Depression era forebears, when people wanted the theater to cheer them up, not provide a spiritual catharsis. But what the heck-we're in a recession now. Go up to New Milford and see gifted performers do their thing, with some of the best lyrics ever written. You'll definitely be entertained!