BWW Reviews: Sparkling KISS ME, KATE at Barrington Stage Company
The first big musical of the Berkshire season has opened at Barrington Stage Company, and it's a doozy. As the lights go up on KISS ME, KATE upstage right is a stanchion labelled "Baltimore" and a bare brick wall, little else. Instead of an overture, a lone voice begins singing an extended version of "Another Op'nin', Another Show" Accompanied by a few simple piano notes. As others arrive the intro begins building up a powerful head of vocal and choreographic steam until all hell breaks loose. This is not just a revival of the much-loved Cole Porter musical, it's a celebration. Climb aboard and hold on to your hat for once this train leaves the station you're in for a spectacular three hour express ride all the way to the final curtain call with only one brief stop to let you catch your breath at intermission.
Artistic Director Julianne Boyd promised to "go big" with this KISS ME, KATE and indeed she did. While this musical has a long history and has been oft performed, nothing could have prepared this reviewer for the wild - and oftentimes provocative - ride this Barrington Stage production delivers. Directed by a deceptively laid back Joe Calarco, this is a hyperactive KISS ME, KATE, perfect for all audiences, even those with ADD.
"Going Big" in this case means lots of clever multi-level scenery pieces designed by James Kronzer which move up, down and all around the stage as the musical's 17 scenes take us to Baltimore, Padua, and backstage as this show within a show unfolds.
Cole Porter could be considered the star of this show, and he wrote much of its score at his home in Williamstown where the cast, as it turns out, performed some of his songs in his memory. Listening to his sparkling music and often naughty words, one is reminded how Hollywood in its folly toned down the movie version so they could sell it as family entertainment. But this is a musical that absolutely has to be naughty to be good. Director Calarco and his cast have milked every Porter double entendre and ingenious rhyme for maximum effect.
It is amazing how relevant the witty book by Bella and Sam Spewack has remained, losing none of its sassy edge or oversized characters in the intervening years. Their story follows backstage rivalries and love affairs as they spill over onto the stage as we follow a traveling theatre company that's putting on an out-of-town version of Shakespeare's TAMING OF THE SHREW. The lead characters are the divorced but still madly in love Broadway legends Lilli Vanessi (Elizabeth Stanley) and Fred Graham (Paul Anthony Stewart) as the warring Katherine and Petruchio.
No stranger to the Berkshires, Elizabeth Stanley simply outdoes herself as she returns to the same stage where, last summer, she appeared as Claire de Loon In ON THE TOWN. Stanley's star certainly shined brightly then, but in taking on the role of the quarrelsome Katherine, it has become a supernova. Tempestuous, intimidating and hilarious, she also has her tender moments, too. But mostly she is just raising the acting ante for Stewart who matches her gasp-inducing fireworks with a lot of bravado and a few pyrotechnics of his own. When Stanley launches into "I Hate Men", she brings the house down. Not to be outdone, Paul Anthony Stewart counters with his role's signature song, "Where is the life that late I led?" The chemistry between the two leads is a lot of fun to watch, especially as they alternate between being explosive and charismatic to each other.
Of course, everyone looks to the moment when Petruchio puts his wayward wife over his knee and gives her a spanking - acceptable behavior back in 1949 - and often seen as disconcertingly provocative as in Shakespeare's original. But the lead-up to the moment is so full of female fury that the sting is taken out of it.
Several subplots are interwoven into the story, like the other love match in this musical. Lois Lane (Mara Davi), is the actress playing Bianca, and her gambler boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes), also plays Lucento, and his gambling debt causes the acting company to run afoul of some gangsters. As Lois, Davi is the sexy but innocent and clueless object of both Bill and Fred. Hanes takes a minor role and polishes it - in song and dance - into an unforgettable portrayal of that loser you can't help loving.
The gangsters who arrive to collect the gambling debt, Carlos Lopez and Michael Dean Morgan, provide the requisite plot twists and humor that propel this unlikely tale along. They also sing the show's signature song and show-stopper, "Brush up your Shakespeare," with its unforgettable lyric: "If she says your behavior is heinous/ Kick her right in the Coriolanus".
This KISS ME, KATE boasts some of the most energetic and dazzling choreography ever seen at Barrington Stage, and that is saying something since dance is becoming a hallmark of the company's musical, not an afterthought. Credit goes to choreographer Lorin Latarro who infused the cast with a joie de vivre that began with the opening number and continued throughout the show. When the back walls of the stars dressing rooms - made of scrim material - melted away as Fred and Lilli launched into "Wunderbar" we were suddenly transported to an elegant ballroom as the ensemble - having changed costumes - is seen whirling around elegantly, only to disappear as the song ends. This is theatrical magic of the highest order.
Likewise, as Act II begins, they bemoan a hot night with "Too Darn Hot" but even so the dancers and cast raise the temperatures to boiling as their energy explodes on stage. The great dancing continues to impress, especially that of Matthew Bauman as Paul, and continues right through the final ensemble number. I never thought of KISS ME, KATE as a challenging dancer's show (even though Bob Fosse is in the film version) but it certainly is now.
Music has always been the most important element of a musical and this KISS ME, KATE has a large pit orchestra with all the requisite instrumentation: strings, reeds, percussion and brass. At 12 pieces, it matches the requirements of most medium sized Broadway theaters. Music Director Darren R. Cohen has found the best players ever to be fielded in a Berkshire theatre, with a sound so magnificently balanced and flawless you could sense Cole Porter smiling down on them. One of the reasons for its success is that he found not one, but two superb trumpet players, a real necessity in a brassy show like this where the trumpet rarely gets more than a few measures rest.
Even for the late forties, the show was daring, a little rude and risqué, pushing the envelope with some colorful use of language. Some of the bits of stage business in this KISS ME, KATE went a bit further, much to the audience's delight, and perhaps Shakespeare's as well. If you think that KISS ME, KATE is a musty old musical, surprise yourself by getting tickets to this one now. It's on stage for a month - the longest run of any musical in the Berkshires - and already the happiest, toe-tapping and eye-popping hit of the young season.
Barrington Stage Company presents Cole Porter's KISS ME, KATE, Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter, Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, Directed by Joe Calarco, Choregography by Lorin Latarro, Musical Direction by Darren R. Cohen, Scenic Design by James Kronzer, Costume Design by Amy Clark, Lighting Design by Jason Lyons, Sound Design by Ed Chapman, Wig Designers Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas; Production Stage Manager Renee Lutz; Casting by Pat McCorkle, CSA; Director of Production Jeff Roudabush; Press Representative Charlie Siedenburg.
Cast: Lilli Vanessi/Katherine - Elizabeth Stanley; Fred Graham/Petrucio - Paul Anthony Stewart; Lois Lane/Bianca - Mara Davi; Bill Calhoun/Lucento - Tyler Hanes; Hattie - Nyla Watson; Paul - Matthew Bauman; Harrison Howell - Fred Inkley; Gangster1 - Carlos Lopez; Gangster 2 - Michael Dean Morgan; Harry Trevor/Baptista - Roger E. DeWitt; Hortensio/Ensemble - Calvin Cooper; Gremio/Ensemble - KC Fredericks; Pops/Ensemble - Joel Robertson; Ralph/Ensemble - Kyle Pressley; Ensemble - Brittany Bohn, Jennifer Evans, Matthew Gregory, Adrienne Howard, Gabriel Kadian, Jakob Karr, Amanda LaMotte, Robin Lounsbury, Jordana McMahon, Brian Sandstrom, Ross Yoder.
June 11-July12, 2014. Running time about three hours including one intermission. At the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. 413-236-8888 (Box Office) barringtonstageco.org
Photo above: by Kevin Sprague, showing Elizabeth Stanley and Paul Anthony Stewart.