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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Kiss Me, Kate
Hartford Stage

Also see Fred's reviews of Butler and The Second Mrs. Wilson


Mike McGowan and Anastasia Barzee
Several of the production numbers which highlight Darko Tresnjak's ever resplendent production of Kiss Me, Kate, at Hartford Stage through June 14th, are state-of-the-art/extraordinary. Boasting Peggy Hickey's choreographic touch and expertise, the production demonstrates many of the virtues of the genre. Musical theater lovers will adore this treat.

Cole Porter (music and lyrics) and the husband-wife team of Bella and Samuel Spewack (book), having worked together on another project a decade earlier, came together in 1948 to create this classic musical. The action begins backstage at a Baltimore theater (late 1940s) and runs from early in the morning until midnight or so. Actor/director/producer Fred Graham (Mike McGowan) will play opposite his former wife Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee) in a tryout of a musical rendering of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Fred will play Petruchio and Lilli is cast as Kate. Graham thinks he was sending along flowers to Lois Lane/Bianca (Megan Sikora) but Lilli receives them instead. Lilli and Fred, until the confusion is evident, are peaceful with one another.

A subplot finds Bill Calhoun/Lucentio (Tyler Hanes) quite taken with Lois. Bill, however, tends to gamble, lost a fair amount of money, and placed the name of Fred Graham on an IOU. Two ludicrous "tough guys" played by Brendan Averett and Joel Blum arrive backstage to get the dough—from Fred. He advises the comic gangster types that if Lilli remains in the production they can make it big and he will eventually come up with the cash. Meanwhile, Lucentio, Hortensio (Giovanni Bonaventura), and Gremio (Barrett Martin) seek favors with Bianca and she admits she would marry any of them. It all moves on from there and we are only midway through the first act.

Kiss Me, Kate opens with "Another Op'nin', Another Show" and this ensemble smacks it out of the park with a truly stunning version of Cole Porter's tune. With Hattie (Charity Angel Dawson) and others collaborating and Hickey's dance moves actualized, the musical flies off the stage with an enviable blend of joy and expertise. The first hour plus is punctuated by one Porter hit after another. Hanes and Sikora combine voices on "Why Can't You Behave?" That is followed by McGowan and Barzee on "Wunderbar." Barzee's Bianca and her suitors express themselves clearly on the visually hilarious "Tom, Dick or Harry." Katherine (with the physical actress Barzee in her element) then declares "I Hate Men."

The second act, as did the first, begins with an off-the-chart show stopper: "Too Darn Hot." This one is catapulted into the heights by Paul (James T. Lane). He and the performers around him are muscular, pliable, and also able to deliver lyrics on pitch and with conviction. It's all about the heat wave which is making it difficult to contemplate coupling with a lover. That is followed by McGowan, as Petruchio, raising his deep, resonant voice on "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" He wonders what happened to those days when he was single.

"Brush Up Your Shakespeare" finds the not-so-threatening bad men (who are now dressed in Elizabethan garb) singing words which indicate that it might be possible to find romance by actually acquainting with some of his plays. Everett and Blum get laughs but this particular rendition is not memorable. <>p>Tresnjak has written that he thought about staging this musical for more than a couple of decades; and this I believe. He has gone for color, varied dimension, and depth with his production. It looks great: Alexander Dodge, designing, brings us backstage a few times; and otherwise to the Renaissance and Italy. Fabio Toblini creates costumes which are period accurate, rich in hue, eye-catching, and just revealing enough. Kris Kukul is the talented music director/conductor and he has 15 musicians in the pit with him. The blend amongst instruments and voices is nicely balanced.

If any actor could be singled out it would be Mike McGowan, whose large, rich voice allows him to triumph with his numbers. Anastasia Barzee, the skilled female lead, is versatile and has an intuitive feel for her many comic opportunities. The large company, to a person, is stirring and enthusiastic. Tresnjak is proactive in facilitation. He works with material (from Porter and the Spewacks) which stands the test of time. To his credit, this impressive show lifts off early and flies high throughout.

Kiss Me, Kate continues at Hartford Stage through June 14th, 2015. For tickets, call (860) 527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.


Photo: Charles Erickson

- Fred Sokol



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