Hartford Stage’s rousing production of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate,” which this reviewer caught on May 27, is exceptional in so many delightful ways, but especially so because of the remarkable attention to detail that director Darko Tresnjak and his choreographer Peggy Hickey have given to virtually every movement or action on the stage.
This is certainly to be expected from last year’s winner of the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical (for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which Tresnjak developed at Hartford Stage), who also directed several memorable productions at the Goodspeed Opera House as well. As a result, this new production offers an unexpected freshness that further supports the show’s place in the firmament of classic American musicals.
Yes, “Kiss Me Kate” has a lot going for it already with its memorable Porter score with such standards of the Great American Songbook as “Too Darn Hot,” “We Open In Venice,” “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” and “So In Love,” to name just a few. In addition, the book by the legendary Bella and Samuel Spewack is considered to be one of the finest librettos in the history of the musical theater, with its sharp characterizations, clear through line, clever plot twists, and sly humor. But that’s no guarantee of a memorable production if those assets are squandered.
Not to worry. Tresnjak has taken meticulous care to devise a production that showcases the music and lyrics to maximum effect through some luscious voices and highlights the wry humor of the book through any number of on-target performances. He’s assisted by the costumes designed by Fabio Toblini, whose creations immediately reflect the production’s late 40’s and early 50’s time in the fashions worn by the characters in this story of a touring musical production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” whether they be formal traveling wear, military uniforms or the casual rehearsal clothes of the chorus boys and girls. At the same time, Toblini has provided an array of festive, colorful, occasionally over-the-top costumes in the commedia del’arte style for the show within the show—the actual musical that this fictional company is performing.
Then there’s Alexander Dodge’s ingenious scenic design which successfully accommodates the various locations in and around the Baltimore theater where “The Taming of the Shrew” is being mounted, as well as the sets for the Italian-set show within a show. Tresnjak makes subtle yet effective use of a central turntable to not only move scenery but to change perspective in the middle of a scene or bring certain characters together. There are two towers on either side of the proscenium layout that serve as stairs leading up to the various dressing rooms. With a simple 180-degree turn, they become part of the Shakespearean musical, with little doors and windows that allow cast members to peak out and participate in the action with great comic effect.
It helps too that Tresnjak has carefully cast his production with some strong comic actor-singers who do justice to the music as well as to the individual characterizations. Mike McGowan and Anastasia Barzee, certainly not yet household names even to musical theater aficionados, deliver commanding performances that surely rival their many predecessors in the roles of star-impresario Fred Graham and his former wife, the musical comedy star Lilli Vanessi, who are appearing as Petruchio and Katherine respectively in the Baltimore tryout of their version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” They both possess eloquent singing voices and have the acting chops to handle the hilarious verbal and physical brawling between the antagonistic, yet still loving, former spouses. The pair capture the nuances of their characters quite impressively, providing the necessary depth and maturity (or in some cases, immaturity) that these complex, spirited roles demand.
The two leads are very nearly matched by the secondary leads, Tyler Hanes as the gambling, irresponsible song and dance man Bill Calhoun (the subject of “Why Can’t You Behave) and Megan Sikora, sporting an ultimately endearing Brooklyn-ditzy accent, as his love interest, the perpetually unsatisfied, security hunting chorine, Lois Lane. They each get a chance to shine in consecutive audience-pleasing numbers late in the show, Sikora with her “Always True To You In My Fashion” in which she is constantly distracted by expensive gifts from various anonymous admirers to Bill’s everlasting chagrin, and Hanes with a tap-dancing, jazz infused “Bianca,” as he tries to convince Lois that he’s willing to change his wayward ways.
Also engaging the audience’s attention are Brendan Averett and Joel Blum as the two Baltimore gangsters sent to cash in on an IOU that Bill signed using Fred’s name. Even though armed with pistols, the two are almost as endearing as the gamblers in “Guys and Dolls” as they find themselves on stage and in costume as part of the show within a show to assure that Lilli fulfills her contract so that Fred can pay back the IOU. The joke of course is how the gangsters get so caught up in their roles that they reveal themselves to be somewhat Shakespeare fans themselves, particularly in their show-stopping eleven o’clock number, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” which also contains some of Porter’s most amusing lyrics.
Also memorable are Giovanni Bonaventura and Barrett Martin as Hortensio and Gremio in the play within the play who, along with Hanes, as Bill Calhoun’s on-stage role of Lucentio, are rivals for the affections of the Bianca of Sikora’s Bianca. The pair are exquisite dancers not only in these roles but sharing the major dancing chores in nearly all of the evening’s production numbers as members of the ensemble. Other standouts include Charity Angel Dawson who leads “Another Op’nin’..” with just the right amount of soul and James T. Lane who provides a slinky jazz motif to the second act curtain raiser, “Too Darn Hot.”
Hickey’s choreography manages to accomplish a great deal with just a small amount of room as many of her dances are performed in front of a scrim to accommodate scene changes behind or in and around various components of the set, such as large fountain centered by a green statue of a naked Neptune, or a huge broken fan that gets swerved around the stage only to suddenly start blowing delicious wind onto the twirling crew of dancers.
While Tresnjak goes by the book for this production, it’s the little touches that he and Hickey have added that significantly add to the evening’s enjoyment. Nearly every move in a song or dance number has obviously been carefully considered to provide additional humor or character insight. For example, Barzee’s Lilli holds and holds and holds a note to marvelous effect at the end of “So in Love,” or pounds a carefully placed metal mug for rhythmic emphasis for her “I Hate Men” (and note how there happens to be a second conveniently placed mug for her to use after the revolving set turns half way around. Then there are the moments throughout Bianca’s courtship with her three admirers that play on one of the words in the song “Tom, Dick or Harry,” (I’ll let my readers guess which one) as Sikora gleefully manhandles her guys as they engage in appropriately timed pelvic thrusts.
Other examples of Tresnjak’s creative touches include having Hanes appear unexpectedly from darkened corners of Dodge’s set as he watches Sikora’s Lois flirt with her gift-giving admirers or having the memories of Petruchio’s past loves appear fully costumed in windows at various levels in the two towers at the edges of the stage. Even if you’ve just come to bask in the glorious Porter score, Tresnjak has incorporated just the right amount of clever theatrical that makes it impossible not to be caught up in the buoyancy of the staging.
There’s even an orchestra pit constructed under the proscenium configuration for this normally thrust stage, where music director Kris Kukul, who apparently did the orchestrations as well, conducts his fine sounding 14-member orchestra, which is a size typical of today’s Broadway orchestras.
While it may be “Too Darn Hot” in Baltimore for the cast of the musical within the musical and the temperature may be threatening to reach such heights outside in Hartford, the Hartford Stage’s production of “Kiss Me Kate” is a refreshing respite from the weather, work or whatever is going on in someone’s life. It is playing through June 14 and then heads out to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego this fall. So it is well worth catching Hartford Stage’s inventive, delicious take on this Cole Porter classic. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit the Hartford Stage website at www.hartfordstage.org.