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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Kiss Me, Kate Comes Wealthily and Happily to Paper Mill

Kiss Me, Kate
Michele Ragusa and
Mike McGowan

It would be difficult to overpraise Kiss Me, Kate. The varied and richly melodious music of Cole Porter stylistically encompasses both classical Italianate music and swing. The exceptional craftsmanship and wit of both Porter's lyrics and Bella and Samuel Spewack's book seamlessly blend together to produce a delightful libretto which is both literate and low down funny. Thus, when it receives as first rate and confident a production as is now on stage at Paper Mill, a visit guarantees a smooth ride to musical comedy heaven.

Kate tells the backstage story of a pre-Broadway Baltimore tryout of The Taming of the Shrew. Fred Graham is directing, and playing Petruchio opposite the Katharine of his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi. They will carry their feud into their on-stage roles. Matters are complicated by Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, two nightclub hoofers making their legit debuts. Fred is giving too much attention to the flirtatious Lois, and her Bill has signed Fred's name on a gambling debt IOU which will bring a couple of musical comedy gangsters down upon him.

Kiss Me, Kate is widely recognized as one of the great classics of American musical theatre, yet it has only had one Broadway revival since its 1948 Broadway debut. It is simply devilishly difficult to produce. Kate requires performers who combine a true flair for the jaunty fun and inflections of musical comedy, trained voices able to sing classic, semi-operatic popular music without making it operatic, and the acting skills needed to convey more than a bit of Shakespeare. It also requires a director who can match the skills of its brilliant creators in blending these diverse elements.

Director James Brennan brings a sense of sure handed, breezy confidence to the proceedings. He makes us feel as if it is 1948 again. The pacing is lively, but nothing feels rushed or slighted. There is much fresh detail in the performance. A number of director's touches throughout the show testify to Brennan's attention to detail. For an example, look for Petruchio's exit after singing "Where is the Life That Late I Led?". Brennan's casting of Mike McGowan and Michele Ragusa in the leading roles is particularly fortuitous.

Mike McGowan is nigh on to ideal as Fred/Petruchio. McGowan sings with power and accuracy, and his inflections lightly capture all the humor of the lyrics. There is a clear difference between his classic Petruchio and modern Fred, but in both roles, he is a delightfully cheeky conniver. It is a performance not to be missed, and, in my opinion, makes this Paper Mill production considerably stronger than the 1999 Broadway revival.

Michele Ragusa is an excellent Lilli/ Katharine. This dual role does not have as many colors as that of Fred/ Petruchio. For the most part, even when on stage as Shakespeare's shrew, Ragusa has to enact a very angry Lilli. As all who saw her in Paper Mill's She Loves Me know, the lovely Ragusa is a fine actress and sings strongly and stylishly. Lilli/ Katharine is one of the most operatic roles in musical comedy, and Ragusa sings it beautifully. She totally captures the humor of "I Hate Men," as well as the soaring beauty of "So in Love."

Amanda Watkins (Lois Lane/ Bianca) is clearly a talented singer/dancer. However, she makes an error by portraying Lois as a complete ditz. Singing "Tom, Dick or Harry," her Bianca appears even dumber than Lois. The humor is in her singing big band style, swing music in The Shrew, not in making Bianca appear foolish. Gordon Joseph Weiss and William Ryall as the two gangsters perform with skill and diligence. They give their "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" a nice choreographic lift, courtesy of choreographer Patti Colombo. However, Ryall's zombie-like gangster needs to loosen up a bit in order to get his share of the laughs.

Stacy Sargeant as Hattie delightfully starts the evening with "Another Op'nin' Another Show"; Eugene Fleming evokes memories of Bobby Short with a lovely, laidback interpretation of "Too Darn Hot"; and Patti Colombo's ensemble dance number for "Hot" that follows is a crowd pleaser.

Robert Stoeckle is very funny as Lilli's dunderheaded fiancé who comes to rescue her from Fred's clutches. This now very funny role was purportedly re-written a while back by John Guare. Herb Foster and Rod Roberts lend solid support as Baptista and the Stage Manager, respectively. There is much ensemble song and dance, and the entire ensemble is praiseworthy. There is a particularly spectacular, eye-catching dance performance by Wes Hart.

The colorful, attractive and playable sets and backdrops are attributed to James Fouchard. The lush and substantial but easily playable costumes are the work of F. Mitchell Dana, who designed the costumes for the Broadway revival.

The 16-piece orchestra is most ably conducted by Tom Helm. The sound design by Randy Hansen allows us to hear a great deal of instrumental detail. There is no credit for the fine arrangements, which are likely derived from those by Don Sebesky which were employed for the 1999 Broadway revival.

Do not look for anything new fangled about the Paper Mill Kiss Me, Kate. It simply provides outstanding entertainment by restoring this brilliant classic musical insofar as possible to its original glory.

Kiss Me, Kate continues performances (Evenings: Wed., Thurs. & Sun. 7:30 pm; Fri. & Sat 8 pm/ Matinees: Thurs, Sat. & Sun. 2 pm) through May 18, 2008 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.

Kiss Me, Kate music and lyrics by Cole Porter; book by Bella and Samuel Spewack; directed by James Brennan, choreographed by Patti Colombo

Cast
Hattie………………………………...Stacey Sargeant
Paul………………………………….Eugene Fleming
Ralph-Stage Manager, Ensemble………..Rod Roberts
Lois Lane (Bianca)…………………Amanda Watkins
Bill Calhoun (Lucentio)……………..Timothy J. Alex
Lila Vanessi (Katharine)…………….Michele Ragusa
Fred Graham (Petruchio)....................Mike McGowan
Harry Trevor (Baptista)………………….Herb Foster
Pops-Stage Doorman…………………….Gary Lynch
First Man………………………Gordon Joseph Weiss
Second Man……………………………William Ryall
General Harrison Howell…………….Robert Stoeckle
(Gremio)/ Ensemble…………………………Wes Hart
(Hortensio)/ Ensemble………………Stephen Carrasco
(Nathaniel)/ Ensemble………………………Eric Shorey
(Gregory)/ Ensemble………………Cameron Henderson
(Philip)/ Ensemble……………………….Elliott Bradley
Ensemble: Desiree Davar; Katie Hagen; Tiffany Janene Howard; Liz Kimball; Kate Marilley; Elisa Van Duyne; Kyle Vaughn


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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