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BWW Reviews: Playhouse 'Brushes Up' KISS ME, KATE

For its spring musical, Playhouse on the Square has reached several decades back and produced -- not an "old warhorse of a musical" (sorry, Rodgers and Hammerstein) -- but a true thoroughbred, Cole Porter's sparkling, innovative (at the time) KISS ME, KATE. Just as Shakespeare himself created enduring plays by utilizing the best plots and characters of other works, so did Porter and his collaborators, Bella and Samuel Spewack -- they went right to the Bard himself, and in building their own superb entertainment around the rollicking THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, they created such a witty, enjoyable romp that would cause even the immortal Shakespeare to set aside his pen, smile, and snap his garters.

Under the confidant, buoyant direction of Jordan Nichols (who, for such a young talent, has an affinity for material like this), KISS ME, KATE can stand alone on any of its separate parts: It "fires on all cylinders." The sections of TAMING, for instance, retain the hilarious high points of the play itself; the sections dealing with the parallel lovers (Petruchio/Fred, Kate/Lillian, Lucentio/Bill, and Bianca/Lois) have been deftly written and performed with panache, and are a worthy reflection of the Renaissance original. Moreover, there are those brilliant, melodic songs, which still have the power to evoke laughter and delight. (While Oscar Hammerstein may lead you walking "through a storm with your head held high," the sophisticated Porter, more reminiscent of Richard Rodgers' other lyricist, Lorenz Hart, soars over those "bright golden" meadows and cornfields and aims more for the intellect than the heart.)

Scenic Designer Bryce Cutler has created a Globe Theater-like setting, perfectly conceived for a production of TAMING OF THE SHREW, but he also cleverly incorporates the backstage ambience and the efficientliy gliding dressing rooms for the stars. Moreover, the Lighting Design by John Horan lowers chandeliers and utilizes stage lights and spotlights in a colorful pattern. And dancing and singing throughout this on-stage/off-stage world, the cast sports costumes, courtesy of Rebecca Y. Powell, that are redolent of both the Renaissance AND the late 1940's and early 50's.

The cast for KISS ME, KATE is effervescent and talented. Steven Michael Zack, brought into the show late as a replacement for another actor, strikes a magnificent pose as "Fred" (in fact, an artistic rendering of him wittily recalls the famous Renaissance portrait of a youthful Henry VIII -- a delightful touch), and having performed the part before, brings confidence, joy, and a fine voice to the part. Katie Hahn's "Lillian" is a marvel -- vocally and otherwise. (When I learned from the program that she was returning to her home in the Midwest, I thought, "Fine . . . just leave your voice in Memphis.") Her instrument is perfect for operetta, and it is used to stunning effect on numbers like "So in Love." However, "duck and cover" when the "I Hate Men" number explodes. Both players have wonderful comedic timing. As the secondary lovers, Leah Beth Bolton and Oliver Jacob Pierce are charming performers, capable of delivering their numbers with energy and skill (particularly enjoyable is their "Tom, Dick, or Harry" number).

Beyond the four main players, a number of secondary roles should be singled out. Claire D. Kolheim's "Hattie" dazzles with "Another Op'nin, Another Show" (were it not for Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business," this would be my No. 1 I-Love-Theater anthem), and the talented Marc Gill is "super cool" snapping his fingers and jazzily phrasing "It's Too Darn Hot." Finally, John Hemphill and John Maness are welcome backstage intruders as the thugs who have been sent to intimidate "Fred": Their "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" is one of the best numbers in the show (it goes on and on, but somehow doesn't seem to go on long enough -- and the way Mr. Hemphill wears that hat defies gravity). (I wonder if Woody Allen took them as inspiration for the Chazz Palminteri character in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY.)

Sometimes, with the production of a decades-old play for which we have a sentimental spot, there's a dread that it may no longer have the effect it once did. Some of the humor of SOUTH PACIFIC or OKLAHOMA can seem tedious today, but KISS ME, KATE dismisses such fears. It's as fresh and funny now as it has ever been. Through May 31.

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From This Author - Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)