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Kiss Me, Kate

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Samuel and Bella Spewack

Directed by John Going

The Muny, St. Louis

June 27, 2011

So, we got a double dose of Shrew in Forest Park this Summer. Last month, there was the wonderfully different production of The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and now the Muny brings us the classic musical variation, Kiss Me, Kate. Personally, I love this show. I love the 40s atmosphere, Cole Porter’s sharp, witty and sometimes hilariously raunchy songs, and the whole backstage dynamic of a troupe of actors and crew performing a pre-Broadway tryout of a show in post-WWII Baltimore.  It’s such a wonderful evocation of time, place and character, and the Muny’s production did an excellent job of taking the audience to that time and place.

Now it is time to gush a little.  I loved, loved, LOVED this production!  It’s not the most politically correct of shows, but it’s a whole lot of fun, and both sides in this battle of the sexes are equally matched. It’s the story of a theatre troupe in the 1940s as they are staging a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew, with the leads played by a bickering formerly married couple—stage veteran Fred Graham (Tom Hewitt) and stage-and-screen actress Lilli Vanessi (Lisa Vroman).  Their relationship is the center of a story that involves gamblers, actors, and lots of misunderstandings, as well as Cole Porter’s glorious score and wonderful, clever lyrics–for instance: “I’ll stay with you forever/or at least ’til you dig my grave” (from “Why Can’t You Behave”), and fun rhymes like “Demo-crassy”/Brassy/Lassie in “I Hate Men”, as well as the long list of bawdy Shakespeare puns in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, and the beautiful music ranging in style from love ballads  to jazz.  I love this score, and this production more than does justice to it.

There’s lots of verbal (and some physical) sparring and sparks flying between the two leads, Hewitt and Vroman.  It’s a very believable rocky relationship, and both actors perform their roles with gusto.  Vroman in particular has a clear, powerful voice which served the classic Cole Porter score well.  Hewitt offered a vivid, confident portrayal of an actor with a little too much ego.  His voice was also strong for the most part, except in “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily In Padua” which he acted wonderfully but seemed to struggle a bit in his lower range.  Overall, though, the show was made by his chemistry with Vroman, which was perfect.  I also loved the relationship between Lois Lane/Bianca (Andrea Chamberlain) and Bill Calhoun/Lucentio (the magnetic Curtis Holbrook).  Chamberlain played her role as a classic 40s bombshell to excellent comic effect, and Holbrook’s dancing stole the show whenever he got the chance to strut his stuff, in numbers like the sizzling “Too Darn Hot” and the delightfully goofy “Bianca”.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the performances of Conrad John Schuck and Lee Roy Reams as a pair of gangsters out to collect a gambling debt.  Their performance of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” was a comic highlight.  St. Louis veteran actor Joneal Joplin also put in a solid performance as an aging actor portraying Kate and Bianca’s father, Baptista.

As a self-confessed ‘theatre geek”, I love the backstage atmosphere of this show, with references to the actors’ previous roles and future aspirations, as well as the stagehands and crew members involved with the production of the show.  The set varies from the more realistic backstage backdrops to the brightly colored, somewhat cartoonish set pieces in the Taming of the Shrew sequences.  The costumes in the play-within a play also call to mind photos I’ve seen of productions from that era.

For me, live theatre is about energy.  Often, energy is the key difference between a good performance and a great one.  This production was just crackling with energy from beginning to end.  The comedy was sharp, the dramatic moments were pitched just right, the singing and dancing were almost universally excellent, and even though there were one or two line flubs, the performers didn’t let that throw them off.  This was a glorious production, full of charm, verve, and color. It calls to mind years of Muny history—all those glamorous shows they used to do in the 40s that I am too young to have been able to see, but have seen pictures of in books.  It was joy for me to be able to attend this wonderful celebration of theatre in Forest Park.

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