Writing for Us
A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Kiss Me Kate
Even as this musical opens with the familiar "Another Opening, Another Show," you sense it won't be just another opening. It begins quietly with one stagehand entering the empty backstage area; he is followed by more backstage crew. As one voice (notably that of Stacey Sargeant) is added to the other, the exuberant song steadily builds in excitement. The crew is soon joined by members of the acting company, the dancers and singers and, finally, the principals, all checking out their out-of-town venue and also warming up their bodies.
First produced to general acclaim in 1948, Kiss Me Kate is one of the great ones. It is filled to the brim with the Cole's coolest songs, witty dialogue, and dancing that is (as if you didn't know) calculated to be "Too Darn Hot." An exciting dancing highlight that's set in the alley behind the theater on a hot night following a performance provides a showcase for Colombo's choreography that has the dancers switching gears from limp and languid to lusty and loose.
Kiss Me Kate is the kind of smart, raucous, and rousing musical comedy that would seem to have vanished forever. The Spewacks fashioned the cleverly entwined plot (supposedly inspired by the real-life thespian duo of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) to parallel the personal problems of the tempestuous Lily Vanessi and the vain Fred Graham, a forever battling ex-married show biz couple, with the characters they play — Katharine and Petruchio — in The Taming of the Shrew.
Michele Ragusa and Mike McGowan are superb together as the hot-tempered romantic show biz team that fights to the finish backstage and onstage. They bring wonderful panache to the show. McGowan's fine baritone voice and macho countenance are perfectly suited to the egotistical poses he assumes in the prose song, "I've Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua." And what fun it is to watch raven-haired Ragusa turn from snarling hellcat to beguiling heroine in her finale "I'm Ashamed That Women Are So Simple," inspired by Katharine's sly lecture to "the ladies."
You can expect the company's antics in old Padua, cued by the humorously repetitive "We Open in Venice," to provoke laughter. But this is tame compared to the laughs generated by Gordon Joseph Weiss and William Ryall, as two gangsters (one short one tall) who stop the show with the classic "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."
There's a lulu of a subplot that involves a flirtatious actress (Amanda Watkins) and her gambling boy-friend (Timothy J. Alex). Watkins and Alex give winning performances and are standouts in "Why Can't You Behave," and "Always True to You (in my Fashion)."
No brush up is needed to appreciate the artistry of designer James Fouchard, whose settings are a beautiful contrast of on-stage fantastical and back-stage functional. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are snappy and silly in keeping with the spirit of the show. If providing an audience with a rousing good time was the goal, Kiss Me Kate delivers.
Kiss Me Kate
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Sam and Bella Spewack
Directed by James Brennan
Choreographed by Patti Colombo
Cast: Timothy J. Alex, Eugene Fleming, Herb Foster, Mike McGowan, Michele Ragusa, William Ryall, Stacey Sargeant, Bob Stoeckle, Amanda Watkins, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Scenic Design: James Fouchard
Lighting Design: F. Mitchell Dana
Original Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes with intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ (973) 376 — 4343, www.papermill.org
Prices: $25 - $92
Performances 4/16/08 to 5/18/08
Wednesdays at 7:30 PM, Thursdays at 2 PM & 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM & 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM & 7:30 PM.