The Lovers of 'Kiss Me, Kate' at Paper Mill Playhouse

With their Platinum Anniversary just around the corner, Paper Mill Playhouse (Millburn, NJ) is celebrating the abundance of springtime with an unwavering classic-favorite from the American musical comedy cannon – Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate!

Kiss Me, Kate opened on Sunday, April 20 to rave reviews, thanks mostly to James Brennan's "wunderbar" direction and "too darn hot" choreography by Patti Columbo.  Not to mention the hard-working and high-energy cast – led by Mike McGowan, Michele Ragusa, Amanda Watkins and Timothy J. Alex!

"Kiss Me, Kate is a hilarious back-stage story following two (now-divorced) theatre actors as they star together in a musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Tensions mount, tempers flare and when two gangsters arrive to settle an old score, success becomes a matter of survival," describe press notes.

BroadwayWorld grabbed an opportunity to chat with the four talented leads of this entertaining production…

Mike McGowan (Fred/Petruchio) makes his Paper Mill Playhouse debut as the handsome and ego-rich director/actor Fred Graham and the equally boastful beau, Petruchio, who has "come to wive it wealthily in Padua."  With a towering-build, twinkling blue eyes, and a grin to tame the toughest shrew, Mike shares his delight to join such a fine production…

Eugene Lovendusky: This is such a consummate role for classic American musical comedy. Not only do you get to revel in Petruchio's ego and the slap-stick, but you get to soar in Cole Porter incredible songs like "Were Thine That Special Face" and "Where Is The Life That Late I Led?" Have you ever filled shoes like this before!

Mike McGowan: This has been the broadest thing I've done in a while but it is amazing material. I get to sing things that are truly romantic and sexy – but then I get to be an absolute goof-ball, with an excuse because we're all theatre people!

Eugene: What's it like working with Director James Brennan [aka Jimmy] and Choreographer Patti Columbo?

Mike: Fantastic. They're so inspired. They really brought a lot of insight to the work. I can really be over the top.  Jimmy found a beautiful balance to that; letting us be human but also so out-of-our-minds. It could so easily be just caricature. But if you play it too sincerely, it doesn't work. You have to live in that delicate place. Jimmy was always making choices to keep us in that world.

Eugene: And what about your shrew, Michele?

Mike: She's great! There was never any question about us working well… it was so easy.  One of the things about Kiss Me, Kate is that it celebrates everything about theatre (whether it's the anxiety, joy, humor or absolute fear).  In a way, it gives you permission to bring all of that to your work.  That applies to our relationship, too.  It was just like we were doing the WWF – it was a smack down!

Drama League Award-nominee Michele Ragusa (Lilli Vanessi/Katharine) returns to Paper Mill, where she was last seen as Amalia in She Loves Me.  As Katharine "The Cursed," Michele not only revels in ransacking the stage with over-turned tables and flower-pots, but basks in the alluring star-power of Lilli back-stage…

Eugene Lovendusky: You were glamorous tonight.  At the beginning of the show, you walk in and get to watch the "Another Op'nin' Another Show!" What was your feeling when you realized you were involved in such a classic musical?

Michele Ragusa: Thank you! Oh! From the staging of my first entrance – it's so Scarlet O'Hara – with my hat and lifting up, it's absolute genius.  And to watch the core of our show – they're so talented and to watch them while listening to this fantastic orchestra, it's amazing to me.

Eugene: What's it like being back with Paper Mill?

Michele: It's my dream! Since I last performed here, I've actually moved out here to New Jersey. It's like coming home; I adore it here.

Eugene: You sing "So In Love," cradling flowers and bathed in pink light…

Michele: It's very interesting because tonight – during the second-half of "So In Love" – I thought I was going to cry! It really touched me this evening, I don't know why.  Of course I have that high-note in the end and I was thinking: "I can't cry! I can't cry!" And Tom Helm (Conductor) is down there supporting me… That song is so gorgeous! It's one of those moments I will always remember.

Eugene: You've got that beauty in one hand and then over-the-top comedy in the other.  Tell me what it's like working with Mr. Slap-Your-Butt over there…

Michele: [laughs] The first day I saw Mike in rehearsal – this huge man – I thought to myself: "Okay, this is going to be interesting!" And I actually had a really severe injury two-weeks before rehearsal started.  But we worked things slowly and it felt okay. I healed quickly – and Mike is so amazing. We have a great, special relationship. We so admire each other. Everything is safe, though I am bruised beyond belief! [laughs] My knees are black and blue from the table.  The screaming and singing and trying to learn to throw! It's one of these shows that is so hard, but so rewarding.

Timothy J. Alex (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio) recently appeared at Paper Mill in Pirates! and Pippin.  This go round, as gamblin' man Bill and light-hearted lover Lucentio, Timothy surprised even himself with his ability to shine in Patti Columbo's fancy footwork…

Eugene Lovendusky: You worked really hard tonight!

Timothy J. Alex: It's amazing – this is one of those things that I didn't quite know what I was getting into.  Patti's choreography is fantastic and I love it – but it hurts sometimes. [laughs] I never thought that my body was going to feel as great as it does, because of the athletic-type of choreography. I love doing it! I'm pretty proud of myself that I can be everyone's on-stage father (given our age difference) but still dancing with the best of them.  I'm really grateful to be part of this!

Eugene: Have you ever sung Cole Porter before?

Timothy: I knew all the songs and I'm a child of actors – so I've been around this stuff my whole life. But I have to be honest; I've never seen the show or the movie. I never had the experience of knowing the show as a piece. It's a great opportunity for me to experience Kiss Me, Kate.  It's so melodic. It's simple, melodic and beautiful – and almost everything that he wrote, you can remember!

Amanda Watkins (Lois Lane/Bianca), last seen at Paper Mill as Maria in The Sound of Music, ditches the nun's habit for a seductive smile as slow-witted starlet, Lois, and the desirable Paduan daughter, fair Bianca…

Eugene Lovendusky: Congratulations! You have such a physically-demanding role, but you and your dance-partner, Timothy made it look fantastic.

Amanda Watkins: I don't think I've ever taken-on a role that was so tricky as an actor, so much dance, and kind of high singing! I've known Timothy for a long time – but doing Patti's choreography with him has been a treat.

Eugene: As an actress, how did you take on the "not-so-good-actress" character of Lois?

Amanda: That's the trick of it; to use your acting chops to figure it out.  Jimmy and I talked a lot about how Lois can't be completely vapid.  At the same time, she can't be a player because no one would like her.  She can't pretend like she's an idiot just to get what she wants.  It has to fall somewhere in between – which is like the world of "ish."

Eugene: What makes Kiss Me, Kate so fun?

Amanda: The music is incredible! We didn't do a sitzprobe because we have so much to accomplish at Paper Mill in a short amount of time. The first night of rehearsal with the orchestra, we stopped breathing – it was so exciting! Paper Mill is the perfect place for any New York actor to do great work. This is a show that is right for theatre people!

Kiss Me, Kate at Paper Mill Playhouse (Millburn, NJ), with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and book by Sam & Bella Spewack. Directed by James Brennan, Choreography by Patti Columbo and Musical Direction by Tom Helm.  Tickets $25 to $92 ($20 student rush) may be purchased by calling 973-376-4343, or at the Paper Mill Box Office on Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at

Photos by Gerry Goodstein, 2008 (top-bottom): Mike McGowan as Petruchio; Michele Ragusa as Katharine; Timothy J. Alex as Lucentio; Amanda Watkins as Lois Lane

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Eugene Lovendusky Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)

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