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BWW Reviews: KISS ME KATE at Hartford Stage Company

Director Darko Tresnjak, who won big with A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER on Broadway last season, has masterminded another Broadway-style musical confection with his new production of KISS ME KATE at the Hartford Stage Company. Like GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, this show will move next to the Old Globe in San Diego-and from there it could go anywhere.

Staged proscenium style (presumably to facilitate transfer to older houses than those with the more common thrust configuration of Hartford and many regional theaters) this boisterous and rollicking musical marries some of Shakespeare's most memorable characters (and a little of the Bard's text) with Cole Porter's musical genius. It's structured as a play within a play, where we get to see parts of a production of TAMING OF THE SHREW as well as backstage goings-on in the company.

The actors who play Kate and Petruchio (here, Anastasia Barzee and Mike McGowan) are a volatile couple offstage: long time lovers who divorced a year ago, they are not over each other. This story line was suggested by the actual acting couple of Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, who toured a production of TAMING for five years in the 1930s notorious for lavish production values (a cast of 52, including musicians and comic horses) and fractious celebrity misbehavior.

The Hartford Stage production is also lavish, and underscored by a live orchestra of 15 musicians tucked beneath the stage, conducted by Kris Kukul. This score is full of great songs that feature Cole Porter's memorable tunes and unrelentingly clever lyrics. The balance between singer voices and the orchestra is great: we get every word.

Scenic designer Alexander Dodge (part of the GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE team) has concocted a colorful, compact set that transitions easily from onstage to backstage, with the help of a turntable and two rotating side towers and drop curtains, so there's no loss of momentum as the show unrolls. The opening look as the audience enters is of a theater at rest, with ghost light on stage, visible load in doors, and lowered light bars. This permits a grand build into the action of the play as we see the theater machinery awaken.

KISS ME KATE is a big dance show. Choreographer Peggy Hickey's work is spectacular and varied. It's superbly performed by a troupe of hoofers in gorgeous, sexy, Broadway-does-Elizabethan costumes. The riot of color on stage is fabulous. There's plenty of lyrical dance in the Shakespearean sequences, with many big lifts, but we are also treated to tango and tarantella and jitterbug, one solo tap sequence, a waltz in tight quarters that works anyway, and a few steps of Charleston. There's even a soft shoe by the gangsters turned chorus boys who advise us to "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in Cole Porter's inimitable style late in Act 2. Kudos to the casting agency that found this pair of actors; to Fabio Toblini, the costumer who gave them such absurd garb; and, of course, to the performers themselves (Brendan Averett and Joel Blum) for unabashedly strutting their stuff. It all works.

Several other performers deserve specific mention, though the whole company is top notch. The best voice on stage belongs to Mike McGowan in the Petruchio/Fred Graham role: he's got a big warm baritone and these songs sit right in the sweet spot of his voice. He has the bravado the role (and the wonderfully ridiculous headgear he's been given) requires, but also the ability to show us a softer side and act the heck out of the pauses. Megan Sikora as Bianca/Lois Lane is knowing and sexy and fearless. She carries off this part without ever seeming annoyingly ditsy. Her best moments may be when she is tossed around stratospherically on stage by multiple dance partners while singing one of Cole Porter's naughtiest lyrics: "Tom, Dick or Harry."

The best song in the show, though, has to be the classic "Too Darn Hot" which opens Act 2. The lead voice here is James T. Lane in the role of Innkeeper/Paul, but the number features nearly the whole company. Here's where Darko Tresnjak's directorial hand is most in view, as assisted by Peggy Hickey's choreography. They've crafted a whole story arc within this one song. It begins in the sweltering heat of backstage, with a broken fan and dispirited performers in intermission. As Lane begins to sing, and flirt, the whole company gradually comes alive. Energy breeds energy, and we are drawn in to the second half of the show along with the actors through the sheer joy of dancing and singing.

This production of KISS ME KATE is a boisterous delight, a surprisingly tender love story, and a frank celebration of the theater arts, where the 'family' nature of backstage life is acknowledged and a dusty, hot, empty stage is transformed into a magical arena for human connection. It's a great show, especially for those of us who love the theater.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

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