Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The musical humorously weaves together the story of two egotistical and recently divorced actors who are still madly in love but just can't stand to be around each other. The backstage jealousies and multiple love affairs in the plot spill onto the stage where the company of actors are presenting an out of town try-out of a musical version of Shakespeare's classic comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham are on tour playing Katharine and Petruchio in the show that Graham wrote and directed. Even though he and Lilli are recently divorced and constantly squabble, Fred believes Lilli's movie star status will help sell tickets. Fred is now interested in ingénue Lois, who is playing Bianca in his show, and Lilli is involved with Harrison Howell, a U.S. Army general who has political ambitions. However, it is clear from the first time we see them have a scene together that Lilli and Fred both still love each other, even though their egos and tempers, and onstage squabbles, won't allow them to admit it. Lois' jealous, gambler boyfriend Bill signs Fred's name on a $10,000 gambling IOU which prompts two gangsters to appear at the theater. That sets off a series of comical events that force the upset Lilli, who has threatened to leave the production, to forcibly remain in the show to ensure the debt is paid off, with the two gangsters, and their ever-ready guns, pulled into the show to serve as onstage guards.
Kiss Me, Kate is a cleverly written show in how the backstage antics spill over into the on-stage confrontations. It features a fun and witty, though slightly bloated, book by Sam and Bella Spewack with a few of the Shrew scenes going on a bit too long for my liking, as well as an ending that's a bit too swift. Fortunately, Porter's songs do an exceptional job of both complementing and commenting on the off-stage shenanigans and feature such well known gems as "Another Op'nin, Another Show," "So in Love," "I Hate Men," "Too Darn Hot," and "Always True to You (In My Fashion)." ASU presents the slightly updated 1999 Broadway revival version of the show, which also includes the classic Porter tune, "From This Moment On." Porter's compositions are simply sublime, with lyrics that are a mixture of lush and beautiful romantic words and heightened and hilarious satirical comedic rhymes.
Under Molly Lajoie's impressive direction, ASU's cast features excellent performances from Julia Davis and David Nelson as Lilli and Fred. They have strong and exceptional singing voices and solid stage presence. Davis is expert in expressing Lilli's frustration with Fred in a rambunctious and calculating way. She brings a powerful and playful take on the comical "I Hate Me," while also nicely depicting the conflicts of both characters she plays. Nelson's portrayal of Fred is strong, commanding and assured throughout. His warm voice and effortless charm make it easy to see why Lilli is still in love with him.
Caelan Creaser is simply adorable as Lois, the woman who may appear to be a dim-witted blond but is also very smart in her calculating ways. Her big solo, "Always True to You (In My Fashion)," which features some of Porter's most delicious rhyme schemes, is very well sung and simply staged to allow for the exceptional lyrics to shine. Kade Bailey does well as Bill, Lois' beau, though the romantic relationship between Lois and Bill isn't that clear, so the jealousy he is supposed to have seems slightly unrealistic.
With humorous accents, facial expressions, and line deliveries that get big laughs, Teddy Ladley and Thomas Smith are hilarious as the two thugs trying to collect on the IOU. Their "Brush up Your Shakespeare" is a crowd-pleasing knock-out with perfect, comical choreography by Lajoie that humorously builds throughout the number. In smaller parts, Griffin LeBlanc is appropriately matter of fact as the boring General Howell and Gigi Sierra's powerful voice soars on "Another Op'nin, Another Show." Also, Cade Trotter, who leads the act two opener "Too Darn Hot," has impressive vocals and dancing abilities. That number, which features the entire ensemble, is expertly choreographed by Lajoie with sizzling choreography and varied, fun period steps that get the entire supporting cast pulled into the number.
Maci Hosler's vivid costume designs are excellent and full of color and rich detail. While the scenic design by Alfredo Escarcega may not be overly elaborate, it works well under Lajoie's direction to swiftly move us from the onstage to backstage scenes. Kristen Peterson's lighting features some rich colors, and Dani Lee Hutch's music direction derives vivid harmonies and beautiful notes from the large orchestra and cast which are heard incredibly clear under Matt Drui's sound design.
Kiss Me, Kate is a crowd-pleasing musical comedy classic. While I think some of the play within the play scenes are a bit long, the joy of hearing so many exceptional Porter tunes sung by an excellent cast makes for a highly entertaining evening. ASU Music Theatre and Opera's production has a great cast, spirited direction, and fun creative elements, resulting in an engaging, dynamic and lively affair.
Kiss Me, Kate, September 30, 2018, at the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre in the ASU School of Music, 50 E. Gammage Pkwy in Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased and information on upcoming productions can be found at music.asu.edu/events/music-theatre-and-opera.
Director/ Choreographer: Molly Lajoie