One of Broadway’s leading directorial-choreographic teams and a New York-based cast with credits a mile long breathe fresh life into the Broadway classic Kiss Me Kate at San Diego’s Old Globe in a brand-new revival certain to delight Cole Porter fans and KMK first-timers in equal measure.
Director Darko Tresnjak (winner of the 2014 Best Direction of a Musical Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder) and Peggy Hickey, that musical’s Outer Critics Circle-nominated choreographer, reteam so spectacularly on the Old Globe stage, you’d hardly guess it’s been nearly sixty-seven years since Kiss Me Kate made its Broadway debut.
Any musical theater buff worth his or her salt knows Porter’s play-within-a-musical backwards and forwards, but for the uninitiated out there, Kiss Me Kate’s plot (book by Sam and Bella Spewack) revolves around a troupe of traveling Shakespearean players who (as they sing in the show’s show-stopping opening number) open in Venice, then head on to Verona, Cremona. (“Lotsa laughs in Cremona”), Parma, Mantua, and Padua, before once again opening (you guessed it) in Venice!
Among the “crazy group that never ceases to troop around the map of little Italy” are the stage vets playing Petruchio and Katherina—former spouses Fred Graham (Mike McGowan) and Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee), whose constant bickering amidst occasional musical reminiscences about the “Wunderbar” times of their early married life hint at the possibility that by Kiss Me Kate’s final curtain, the twosome may no longer be exes after all.
Other Taming Of The Shrew company members include inveterate gambler (and ladies’ man) Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes) as Lucentio, and his Bianca, the vivacious Lois Lane (Megan Sikora), currently dating Fred but attracted despite her better instincts to lothario Bill.
Meanwhile, the troupe’s resident Casanova has non-romantic matters on his mind, namely the $10,000 gambling debt he owes the mob, which a pair of Damon Runyonesque gangsters (Joel Blum and Brendan Averett) have come to collect.
Even near the end of his Broadway career in 1948, songwriter extraordinaire Porter was still writing beautiful melodies and some of the cleverest rhymes ever heard on the Great White Way when he took pen to paper for Kiss Me Kate. Take, for example, these lyrics from “Always True To You In My Fashion”: “Mister Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat. If the Harris pat means a Paris hat, Bébé, Oo-la-la!” Oh-la-la is right!
Adding to its eternal appeal, Kiss Me Kate combines the best of Shakespeare (major scenes from The Taming Of The Shrew are intact) with a surefire pair of backstage love stories (and a pair of unwittingly witty gamblers thrown in for good measure.)
In fact, one of the many reasons the Tresnjak revival works so well is just how splendidly those Shakespeare scenes are played, particularly by leads McCowan and Barzee, who could just as easily be headlining the Old Globe’s Shakespeare-Under-The-Stars without singing a note.
That the charisma-blessed Broadway twosome are sensational singers and comedic actors only adds to the excitement. The duo’s fight scenes (choreographed by J. Allen Suddeth) sizzle with lust channeled as rage, and when labor pains provoke from Barzee one of the longest held notes in musical theater history in “I Hate Men,” cheers fill the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.
A fabulous Sikora reinvents the role of Lois Lane, customarily played as the show’s ingénue, in brassy Miss Adelaide mode, her “Always True To You In My Fashion” stopping the show not once but twice, and this Lois’s “Nathan Detroit” (a terrific Hanes as lothario Bill) shows off tap-dancing dazzle in “Bianca.”
As for those iambic pentameter-spouting gangsters, a deliciously mismatched Blum and Averett milk every single laugh from “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” each new encore funnier than the one before.
Aurelia Williams and James T. Lane both get their center-stage moments to shine, she belting out “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” with Broadway’s best and he showing off rafters-reaching pipes and high-kicking heels in the legendary Act Two-opening “Too Darn Hot,” which choreographer Hickey makes absolutely her own, including some “Fan Tan Fannie” moves from the gals and a sexy down-and-dirty interlude smack-dab in the middle.
Talented triple-threats Giovanni Bonaventura and Barrett Martin join Hanes and Sikora as Hortensio and Gremio in “Tom, Dick, And Harry,” yet another Hickey showcase for some of New York’s finest.
Topnotch supporting turns are delivered by Mike Sears as stage manager Ralph, by Jeff Steitzer as Harry Trevor and as Katherina and Bianca’s father Baptista Minola, and by Wayne W. Pretlow as every theater’s inevitable “Pops” (and as Innkeeper/Priest)
Last but not least among featured players is Tony Lawson, whose General Harrison Howell is no crusty old man this time round, but a younger, eye-patched scene-stealer with some inspired physical bits … and at least one clever jab at the NRA. (You won’t hear Lawson’s pipes, however, as “From The Moment On” has bit the dust in this Kiss Me Kate.)
As for Robin Masella (Momo), Shina Ann Morris (Venetia), Jane Papageorge (Becki Weckio), Michael Starr (Phillip, Cab Driver, Chauffeur), and dance captain Johnny Stellard (Biondello, Nathaniel), there’s not a carbon-copy performance in this all-around stellar bunch, just one reason that Kiss Me Kate 2015 is a nonstop attention grabber. (That recent UCLA grads Papageorge and Starr shine every bit as brightly as their more seasoned costars is proof positive that our L.A. talents can match their NYC counterparts step for step.)
Masterful music director Kris Kukul conducts the production’s fourteen-piece Broadway-caliber orchestra, mixed with cast vocals to crystal-clear perfection by sound designer Jonathan Deans.
Kiss Me Kate looks as fabulous as it sounds, highest marks going to costume designer Fabio Toblini’s Technicolor mix of Shakespearean and late-1940s costumes (and Jason Allen’s equally terrific dual-era wigs), and if scenic designer Alexander Dodge’s Taming Of The Shrew sets are more 1960s than 1590s, their Laugh-In-ready “windows” are used to inspired effect. As for the show’s lighting, designs don’t get any more vibrant than Philip S. Rosenberg’s.
Additional program credits go to vocal and text coach Claudia Hill-Sparks, associate music director Max Mamon, production stage manager/fight captain Anjee Nero, and assistant stage manager Amanda Salmons. Sarah Hartmann is assistant director and Adam Cates assistant choreographer.
The last time Darko Tresnjak and Peggy Hickey joined creative forces on the Old Globe stage, their collaboration led to New York’s Great White Way … and four big Tony wins for A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder.
Their superb Kiss Me Kate may well be Broadway-bound as well.
Donald And Darlene Shiley Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
July 14, 2105
Photos: T. Charles Erickson