Review - Kiss Me, Kate: We Open In Millburn
There were actually those who thought Cole Porter, Broadway's fountain of divine wit and sophistication, had run dry by that winter of 1948. Though his recent offerings like Something For The Boys and Mexican Hayride were far from flops, his kind of thin-plotted musical comedy where the book and the songs often had little more than a passing acquaintance with each other was being overshadowed by the enormous success of Rodgers and Hammerstein's integrated musical dramas. Even in the lightest of entertainments, the public was becoming more and more enthralled by musicals with strong plots and well-developed characters.
If they only knew his masterpiece was just waiting in the wings. After hearing of a performance of The Taming of the Shrew where husband and wife stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne had allowed some residual anger from a marital squabble to work its way into their performances, Porter got in touch with his old collaborators, married playwrights Sam and Bella Spewack, and on the night before New Year's Eve '48, they presented Broadway with one of the funniest, wittiest and most romantic musical comedies Gotham has ever seen.
The Paper Mill Playhouse's new production of Kiss Me, Kate, directed by James Brennan, has everything you'd want from a great evening of musical theatre; big laughs, terrific singing, sizzling dances, clever staging and, of course, a magnificent collection of songs ("Another Op'nin', Another Show" "Too Darn Hot" "So In Love" "Always True To You In My Fashion"). Paper Mill uses the version of the script from the 1999 Broadway revival, which includes uncredited revisions that alter the plot just a bit and add a handful of jokes that would not have been heard in a 1948 musical. Brennan's mounting adds its own little tweaks to the text, which actually work very well.
Mike McGowan cuts a dashing figure as exasperated egomaniacal actor/director/producer Fred Graham, trying to score a Broadway hit with a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew starring himself and ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Michele Ragusa). Though Lilli is touched by the flowers delivered from Fred's dresser on the first night of out-of-town tryouts in Baltimore, in the middle of the performance she discovers they were actually meant for Lois Lane (Yup - that's the character's name. Amanda Watkins plays her.), the ditzy nightclub singer getting her first break in legit theatre. All hell breaks lose onstage and off as the scorned woman takes revenge on her ex through the more physical scenes in Shakespeare's raucous comedy.
While not tearing up the stage in their rowdy scenes or shooting well-timed zingers at one another, the two stars show off lovely singing voices. McGowan's rich and appealing baritone hits some impressive and unexpected heights while Ragusa's pretty soprano, sounding almost girlish at times, gives extra tenderness to her classic ballad, "So In Love."
Watkins is a hoot as Lois, getting laughs with the character's awkwardness reciting Elizabethan verse, but sizzling with showgirl confidence when the music turns hot. William Ryall and Gordon Joseph Weiss, as the eloquent gangsters sent to collect on a gambling debt charged to Graham who wind up as on stage characters, are a riot in their scene-stealing roles and I've never seen a funnier performance of their show-stopper, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."
Choreographer Patti Colombo, who did some astounding work in Paper Mill's production of the dance-heavy Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, has fewer opportunities here, but impresses nevertheless. From the hot ballet moves Watkins performs with Timothy J. Alex, Wes Hart and Stephen Carrasco in the "Tom, Dick or Harry" number to the Jack Cole inspired jazz combinations for "Too Darn Hot" and even the simple waltz-clog for the gangsters, her dances are packed with style, character and mounting excitement. I'll buy Patti Colombo a train ticket from Paper Mill to Penn Station if somebody will have a great Broadway assignment waiting when she arrives.
Photos by Gerry Goodstein: Top: Mike McGowan and Michele Ragusa; Bottom: William Ryall and Gordon Joseph Weiss