A play within a play and a Kate within a Kate.
The Hartford Stage’s co-production of Kiss Me, Kate with The Old Globe in San Diego does a fantastic job of developing layers and showing the parallels and distinctions in the world between the world of the stage and the players that bring it to life while allowing the audience full enjoyment of the music of Cole Porter.
We follow the storyline of movie actress Lilly Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee, who starred alongside Kevin Kline in Henry IV: Parts 1 & 2, played Hope in Urinetown and did the role of Emma in Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway) returning to the stage to play Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which the modern audience would recognize as 10 Things I Hate About You, in Baltimore. It’s hard to place the time period the show is set in, but that’s not problematic.
Barzee’s command over her voice is impressive, enabling her notes to flutter with a powerful vibrato and operatic soprano range that fills the room.
Lilly initially comes off as a diva who is hard to work with, particularly when she calls her co-star Fred Graham (Mike McGowan, who has been in The Producers, the Ragtime revival and Grease on Broadway and the film version of The Producers) an unsavory name. But as you peel away the layers to her character, you understand why he has an austere front. He’s her ex-husband.
It wouldn’t be Shakespeare without a case of mistaken identity. The gangsters appear in Fred’s dressing room before one of the shows and he learns they think he signed an IOU for a hefty gambling debt to their mob boss when in reality it was Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes, A Chorus Line, Hairspray, Sweet Charity and Oklahoma! on Broadway). So when it becomes clear Fred can’t convince them it wasn’t him, they make a deal that he’ll get the money to him at the end of the week of shows as more money rolls in. He takes control of the situation and uses the threat to his advantage when Lilly wants to leave him and the show as the gangsters strong-arm her and force her to perform.
McGowan also has an operatic voice that is at its strongest when he is in the spotlight in a solo moment. When he and Barzee sang together, she sometimes overpowered him and you couldn’t always hear his lyrics.
The dynamic between them mirrors that of their characters. Kate, the shrew who hates men (just wait until that humorous number, you’ll love it) and Graham/McGowan’s confident, self-absorbed and manly Petruchio. Only Lilly and Fred drive each other crazy because they know each other deeply and their stage characters clash because they don’t understand each other yet and are just scratching the surface. Their performance is strengthened when Lilly and Fred break their stage characters after a realization that brings on a feud that spills over into their acting. You’ll see.
Later on though, we learn that Lilly’s husband-to-be, General Harrison Howell (Tony Lawson, of Broadway’s Les Misérables) who has personal meetings with the President of the United States and is wealthy, is an even more cocky version of Petruchio who cares about himself than respecting the woman he is wooing. He denies her food like Petruchio (and us actors get hungry, so not cool).
That being said, Kiss Me, Kate really does delve into commentary on the societal view of gender roles. In Taming of the Shrew, and 10 Things I Hate About You for that matter, Kate is temperamental, independent and tough, so the men and her father have negative views of her and do not consider her a lady. Marriage is a device used for her father to get rid of her and Petruchio is trying to tame her like she’s a wild beast. When he accomplishes this and they marry and she tones down her mean-spiritedness and suppresses her emotions and boldness, only then is she considered a lady, when she is tied to a man. Meanwhile, off-stage, Lilly’s spunk and challenging nature are almost a challenge to Fred that amuses him and keeps him interested. However, you’ll hear her fiancé talk about having complete control over his woman and supporting hitting his wife if need be.
Then there’s Lois Lane (Megan Sikora, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Bambi in Curtains, Wicked, Dracula, Thouroughly Modern Millie and 42nd Street on Broadway, no not from Super Man, thought that can’t be a coincidence. Playing the part of Bianca, the shrew’s sister who every suitor wants to marry, off-stage, Lois is an exotic nightclub dancer who seduces many men, including the two leading men in Lilly’s life.
It’s a point of contention for her boyfriend, Bill Calhoun, who wants her to commit and is jealous of her getting so many gifts from admirers.
As Bianca, her song about any Tom, Harry and Dick allures all of the men and is suggestive and showcases her prowess as a dancer in a very entertaining number full of flips and air cartwheels between the men. She also has a knack for humor.
Another dancer who stood out the most, though all of them were excellent, is James T. Lane (Paul), the star and driving energy force of “Too Darn Hot,” one of the recognizable hits in the show like “Another Op’nin, Another Show.”
Charity Angel Dawson (Hattie) also had power behind her voice that brightened the theater.
The play within a play brings depth to the plot. Much like Curtains, you see the actors rehearsing and performing the musical their company is putting on and get a behind the scenes look at their lives backstage. While the entire company isn’t under quarantine or police investigation like Curtains‘ “whodunnit” murder mystery comedy plot, there are forces outside the theater world keeping a couple of the actors on the stage — gangsters First Man (Joel Blum, a Tony Award nominee for best supporting actor in Showboat on Broadway) and Second Man (Brendan Averett), a tough, lovable comical duo that somehow becomes part of the show (superlative for best costumes and wigs goes to them) and performs one of the hits, “Brush Off Your Shakespeare.”
Each ensemble member was unique with their acting choices and personality expressed through dance and song. You can’t have a show with genuine depth without strong background actors.
The costumes were radiant and colorful, accenting the set, thought the men’s attire in The Taming of the Shrew scenes was too tight and feminine to be believable as suitors for Bianca, though it made it easier for the dance numbers. And there are a lot of them.
There were some spots in the book that could have been developed more (a writing thing, not under the control of the production). The gangsters never realize Bill is the one who owes them debt and neither does Fred. Lilly also never learns that Lois had a previous relationship with her future hubby, which would have been an opportunity to build tension between them as oppose to the little interactions they have off-stage.
Music director Kris Kukul almost becomes a character and it’s always a crowd favorite when the actors interact with the band or conductor, but it was sometimes minimally distracting to have him so visible right at the front of the stage. However, the orchestra, under the stage, was fantastic under his direction!
With many Tony Award winners on the directing team, it comes as no surprise that the show is an entertaining, exuberant hit jam-packed with musicality and top notch dancing. Artist Director Darko Tresnjak is most recently known for winning a Tony for Best Direction in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which debuted at the Hartford Stage. He is reunited with Gentleman’s Guide‘s choreographer Peggy Hickey, Alexander Dodge, who was a nominee for a Tony Award for designing the Gentleman’s Guide set and who designed the exquisite set of Private Lives at the Hartford Stage, and Gentleman’s Guide lighting designer Philip Rosenberg. Dodge’s use of the spinning stage floor adds dynamic and movement to an already lively dance show.
The directing team had a Tony Award winning show with Gentleman’s Guide and they had another hit in Kiss Me, Kate. The Hartford Stage should do musicals more often.
Performances run 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays and Sundays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 14. There will be a special Wednesday matinee on June 3 at 2 p.m. Visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151 for tickets and more information.