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'Kate' at TheatreWorks in New Milford

By Chesley Plemmons, The News-Times


"Send in the clowns!" is what wise directors cry when their show – even a classic one – is looking listless.

Luckily, Bradford Blake, the director of "Kiss Me, Kate" at TheatreWorks in New Milford, has Mark Feltch and Jeff Porper, two expert comedians, in his cast. They supply the oxygen in this otherwise workmanlike production of the Cole Porter musical.

"Kate," a show within a show, is an inspired combination of story and music. The book by Bella and Samuel Spewack takes its cue from Shakespeare, and follows the love/hate relationship between two feuding, divorced actors rehearsing for a musical version of "The Taming of the Shrew."

Porter's ample score, 16 songs, is one of his wittiest and most eclectic, ranging from ballads, "So In Love," to ensemble romps, "Too Darn Hot," Viennese waltzes "Wunderbar," and comic gems like "I Hate Men" and "Tom, Dick or Harry."

In this musical menage of Shakespeare and show business, the tempestuous relationship of Fred Graham (Tom Sheehan) and Lilli Vanessi (Priscilla Squires) mirrors that of the Bard's characters Petruchio and Katherine.

The action takes place onstage and backstage at the theater where the out-of-town tryout is taking place. Switching scenes requires space for movement and changes and the little stage at TheatreWorks often looks crowded.

Into this surprisingly literate show, Blake has curiously injected an air of burlesque by having his three lovely female dancers double as characters like the Proteans in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Tossing props, doing prat falls and dashing about to the kabooms of the orchestra, they would be more at home in a farce.

Playing the fickle Graham, Sheehan makes an attractive leading man, but drops in and out of character. He possesses an attractive tenor voice but should resist forcing it regardless of what the music demands.

A veteran of countless musicals in the area, Squires has a secure stage presence and sings with clarity, but she's too often stuck with a one-note persona – frowning and grimacing in anger at her ex's misbehavior.

Shannon-Courtney Porper has the role of actress Lois Lane (Bianca in the "Shrew" sequences). Even though one suspects a much smarter person behind her cutie-pie character, she scores as a lady with a mission – self improvement – you know – jewels, furs, etc. When she wasn't drowned out by the orchestra she got to sing some of Porter's naughtiest lyrics.

Speaking of the orchestra, it's positioned at the rear of the stage on a platform above the action as opposed to being in its occasional place on a platform at the rear of the theater. Perhaps the size of the group, six musicians under the able direction of Arnie Gross, dictated the move, but in this case it steals valuable playing space from the actors as well as producing a sometimes overpowering sound.

Bill Denihan takes a strangely Buster Keaton-like approach to his part as the gambling hoofer, Billy Calhoun. He's a versatile performer and throws himself into the comedy and dancing fearlessly if with a spacey attitude.

The six principal -- and young -- dancers eagerly deliver the Broadway razzmatazz Blake has injected into his choreography. They add needed lively contrast to the quarreling principals.

Costumes by Renee C. Purdy are handsome and colorful in the "Shrew" scenes, and thankfully avoid period true (i.e., unflattering) outfits for the backstage moments.

The show is set in the late 1940s, the time of "Kate's" debut on Broadway, and fashion was pretty drab even by standards of those days.

But oh those clowns!

Feltch and Porper play two mobsters trying to collect a gambling IOU from Graham even though it was signed by Calhoun. They find themselves bewitched and then transformed by the theatrical experience – and by Shakespeare. While their "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" is an almost infallible number, they turn it into a priceless comic gem.

"Kiss Me, Kate" is one of the best musicals Broadway has ever produced and the essence of it is on stage in New Milford, if not all of its magic.

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