Kiss Me, Kate, book by Bella and Samuel Spewack; score by Cole Porter. Directed by Joe Calarco with choreography by Lorin Lotarro. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Full Company of Kiss Me, Kate; photo: Kevin Sprague
A match made in heaven. . ."
When you think of sophisticated musicals you naturally think of "Kiss Me, Kate." Sometimes when you think of lewd and lascivious musicals you might also come to "Kiss Me, Kate." As for musicals with witty and bright songs that amuse you to the point of out-loud laughter, "Kiss Me, Kate" makes the top of that list.
Spending a month on stage at Barrington Stage Company's Union Street Theater in downtown Pittsfield is that very show, "Kiss Me, Kate." The difference that this production is making is simple: it is lewder than usual, louder than usual, more incredibly dancy than usual and its songs are sung at brighter tempos and at a broader, brassier level. The concept of lewd takes on a new stamp here under Joe Calarco's direction. For example the refrain from the song "Tom, Dick or Harry" ends with "a-dick, a-dick, dick, dick." As staged by Calarco and choreographer Lorin Latarro those words which have always extended a sexual image take on a very, very sexual connotation.
Similarly, Petruccio's list-song about this lost long women includes some dry-humping and very specific references to his bulging crotch, or codpiece actually. "Too Darn Hot," which opens the second act is a danced tribute to sex in the summer scorch and even "From This Moment On" goes physical enough to engender the image of a threesome. I'm not complaining, don't get me wrong. It's just that this production hits you over the head with sex at every turn.
Cole Porter wrote his most sophisticated, sensual score for this show. The music alone moves a listener to subtle, unavoidable physical movement. The lyrics add a sexy lustre that almost wreaks of orgasm. As sung and danced by this Barrington Stage Company cast the show is a three hour orgy of humor, sex, erotic rhythms and overwhelming talent. It is also a play within a play. Everyone plays an actor playing a role and this not confusing when you see it.
The leads, Fred and Lilli, are a divorced pair of stage performers whose marriage floundered on hotbed of ego. He has remained on the boards while she has overwhelmed Hollywood. Reunited for a musical based on Shakespeare's "The Taming of The Shrew" they cannot help bickering and then softening when they reminisce. She is engaged to a mysterious figure who turns up late in the first act as everything else is falling by the wayside. Fred's current affaire is playing second lead and her boyfriend, Bill, is one of her three swains in the show. When Bill signs Fred's name to a major gambling debt the show takes off into the realm of everything mentioned above.
Jealousy is a great emotion for an actor to play with and Elizabeth Stanley as Lilli/Kate has a ball playing it to the hilt. She rants, raves, rousts the staff, runs on the stage in a state of anxiety that is beautiful to behold. Stanley has a marvelous way of showing us the emotional breakdown that keeps happening to Lilli each time she uncovers another layer of betrayal. Her singing voice is lovely and she uses it superbly in the gravel-toned "I Hate Men" and in the light-as-air "Wunderbar." Her ballads are essentially broad in tone and bright in emotion, a perfect combination for classic Cole Porter.
Her Fred/Petrucchio is played by Paul Anthony Stewart, the first tenor I have ever heard in this role. He has a wonderful command of the stage from beginning to end and his character is about the most consistent I have encountered in this role. (This show has a major problem. It is a backstage story that divulges too much information about how a show works, something audiences have been given before and will be given again; it's the human tensions here that make for the over-the-top look at the world concealed from a normal audience.) Stewart's style of performance always seems to be telling us not to be too concerned about everyone else on stage. Fred's egocentric attitude is his saving grace here and the actor makes this work for him really well. The more we find him compelling the less the surround captures our attention. His rudeness to his dresser, for example, is lost in the overwhelming charm he displays on either side of his tirade. Stewart does all of this such honesty that his bad behavior as Petrucchio can truly be seen as an actor's masterpiece.
Mara Davi is a lovely, if more than usually ditsy, Lois Lane/Bianca, Kate's younger sister. She is a fabulous dancer and singer and she plays the baby-talking mistress-type with the best of them. Often this role is down-played to bolster the role of Lilli, but not at Barrington Stage. Lois is a real contender and in Davi's hands she almost exceed their grasp as she takes center stage time and time again.
Bill Calhoun, Lois's true love, is played by Tyler Hanes who dances magnificently, sings with charm and acts the unfeeling lout perfectly. He is the right foil for Davi's Lois. He actually made me forget, for the run of the play, of Bob Fosse in the role in the movie; now that takes talent.
The third couple in the show are two gangstgers who invade the theater, played by Carlos Lopez and Michael Dean Morgan. They stop the show-within-the-show with firearms and the show itself with their comedy routine "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." They are a tandem pairing that really does stop the show cold, for at least three encores. Both men are terrific.
Other stand-out performances came from Fred Inkley whose Harrison Howell was a howl, Calvin Cooper as Hortensio and KC Fredericks as Gremio, the other two suitors for Bianca's hand in marriage. Top of the Line is the work turned in by Matthew Bauman as Paul. Lead performer in the second act opener, "Too Darn Hot" Bauman is the exemplar of heat, singing and dancing the shellack off of the stage floor. Not faring as well on opening night was Nyla Watson as Hattie. Her singing was often flat and off-pitch and while her scat singing was excellent, though unnecessary in the song "Another Op'nin, Another Show," she didn't set the barre too high in that first song of the show.
It is difficult to forget the choreography Latarro has created: energetic, human, sensual and sophisticated. Amy Clark's costumes are weirdly right for the period of the show, the late 1940s. James Kronzer's cast manipulated sets worked very well indeed and the lighting by Jason Lyons worked well, although the color sometimes felt wrong for the moment. Darren R. Cohen conducted a pit consisting of twelve players which added considerably to the worthiness of the production.
All in all, this is a lively, sexy, glitzy, sophisticated example of the best that Broadway has provoked from its creative talent pool in the 20th century. It is wonderful to have a show of this calibre on the local stages available for all to see and hear at least once. The month-long run should provide ample opportunities for anyone who wants to see why America has been the best provider of musical theater entertainment to the world. You cannot beat this show. Anywhere. Anytime.
Elizabeth Stanley and Paul Anthony Stewart; photo: Kevin Sprague
Mara Davi and Tyler Hanes; photo: Kevin Sprague
Carlos Lopez and Michael Dean Morgan; photo: Kevin Sprague
Kiss Me, Kate plays through July 12 on the Boyd-Quinson Stage at Barrington Stage Compnay's Union Street Theater located at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. For information and/or tickets call 413-236-8888 or go to their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.