Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Kiss Me, Kate
Originally premiering on Broadway in 1948, this tale of jealousies and love affairs that a company of actors confront when staging an out of town musical try-out of The Taming of the Shrew, cleverly shows how backstage antics spill over into on-stage confrontations. Porter's songs complement and comment on the off-stage shenanigans. The score includes such well known gems as "Another Op'nin, Another Show," "Wunderbar," "So in Love," "I Hate Men," "Too Darn Hot" and "Always True to You in My Fashion" and the book, slightly updated for the 1999 Broadway revival, includes abundant humor that also comments on the musical take-off on the Shakespeare play within the play.
Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham are on tour playing Katharine and Petruchio in a musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew that Graham wrote and directed. Having just celebrated the one year anniversary of their divorce, Fred is now interested in ingénue Lois, who is playing Bianca in his show, and Lilli is involved with the Harrison Howell, an Army General who has political ambitions. Lilli is a movie star, so Fred believes that having his ex-wife in the show will improve its success. However, it is clear that Lilli and Fred still love each other, even though their egos and tempers won't allow them to admit it. Lois' jealous, gambler boyfriend Bill signs Fred's name on a $10,000 gambling IOU, which prompts the arrival of two gangsters to ensure the IOU is paid off. When Lilli, who is upset with Fred, threatens to leave the show, Fred uses that risk as a way to have the two thugs force Lilli to appear in the show. Of course, that means that the two gangsters have to become characters in the play in order to follow Lilli around. Hilarity ensues along with plenty of romantic squabbles, all set amongst some classic Cole Porter's songs.
Heading the cast as Lilli/Kate is Renee Kathleen Koher, who has a strong and beautiful voice and a dynamic stage presence. She is having a blast as the "shrew" Kate, who expresses her frustration with Fred's Petruchio in a perfectly rambunctious yet angry way. Her take on "I Hate Men" is both powerful and playful, and nicely shows the conflicts that both Lilli and Kate are going through. David Sattler is Fred Graham/Petruchio, and while he occasionally rushes his lines, his baritone voice is warm, his vocal abilities are commanding, strong and assured, and he has an effortless charm that easily makes us understand why Lilli still loves Fred. Koher and Sattler seem to be having a ball and their joy is infectious.
Anya Absten is adorable as the dim witted blonde Lois, who is also perfectly calculating, and while her big solo "Always True to You in My Fashion" is well sung, it could be a bit better directed to ensure the more comical lyrics are enunciated to land better. David Michael Bevis is her beau Bill, and his lean physique and stage presence combine nicely to show off his skilled dance abilities. It's just too bad his solo, "Bianca," isn't better choreographed compared to the other dance numbers in the show. We also don't clearly feel the romantic relationship between Lois and Bill, so the jealousy seems slightly unrealistic.
Marc de la Concha and David Simmons couldn't be better as the two thugs trying to collect on the IOU. Their comedic abilities, mugging, facial expressions and line delivery are superb. And their "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" is a knock out, with nicely done comical choreography that shows off how the short and slightly stout de la Concha appears so light on his feet that he could float across the stage. When the two are pulled into appearing in the show, Simmons uses his cigar, his gun, and his hilarious "New Yawk" accent to great comic effect.
Bob Downing is appropriately droll and stern as General Howell, though with a sweet touch of charm, too. Also of note are Ashley D. Kelly as Hattie, Lilli's dresser, with a clear soaring voice that is used to great effect in "Another Op'nin, Another Show," and Justin Sams as Paul, who leads the act two opener "Too Darn Hot" with vivid dancing and jazz inspired vocals. The ensemble cast does a fine job in portraying both the off-stage actors and dancers as well as the on-stage Shrew characters.
Kiel Klaphake delivers effective direction. He doesn't let the romantic squabbles get too far out of hand, always grounding them in the humor of the show. He nicely balances the comical moments with the more romantic ones, giving us a good sense of the history between Lilli and Fred and how their fights are the way they show their affection for each other. He keeps the action moving quickly and seamlessly from the off-stage to the on-stage scenes and back again. Kurtis W. Overby provides skillful choreography throughout, with just the exception of the sub-par "Bianca," though his "Too Darn Hot" builds and builds into an explosive finish. He also uses varied types of choreography to delineate the "Shrew" numbers from the offstage ones.
Paul Black has designed some superb sets, from the gold-edged proscenium arch, which sets the period of the show, to the two-tiered backstage set with a spiral staircase. These also include a lush painted street scene backdrop for the Shrew scenes along with several large set pieces that effectively take us back to the period of the play within the play. Black also provides the lighting design. I love his use of shadows to evoke the dimly light backstage alleyway as well as the sensational use of pink, purple, blue and green lighting during "Too Darn Hot" to portray a heightened sense of sensuality. Morgan Anderson has designed vividly colorful period costumes that perfectly enhance each character. From Fred's hilarious and elaborate jester-inspired Shrew costume to the simple use of having the girls in slips and guys in t-shirts during "Too Darn Hot," Anderson's designs are impressive and perfectly highlight and complement both the simply dressed off-stage actors and the more elaborately dressed on-stage characters. The orchestra, led by music director Josh Smith, is terrific and sounds lush, which is impressive considering it is a reduced seven-piece band.
While Kiss Me, Kate is a crowd-pleaser, the ending is a bit abrupt and a few of the Shrew scenes go on a bit too long for my liking. However, Porter's music is sublime and his lyrics, sometimes comically satirical, other times romantically lush, are superb, so there is still much to enjoy. Other than a few very small missteps, the ABT production is dynamic with a high caliber cast, top notch creative elements and some technically savvy direction and choreography.
Kiss Me, Kate runs through March 23, 2014, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at azbroadway.org or by calling (623) 776 - 8400
Stage Direction: Kiel Klaphake