BWW Review: A Dynamite Duo Makes KISS ME KATE A Golden Age Delight
Another op'nin, another show! This time it's a battle of the sexes and a Golden Age musical by Cole Porter. Inspired by the real-life backstage bickering of famous husband-and-wife actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Kiss Me Kate is both based on real-life events as well as Shakespeare's controversial Taming of the Shrew.
To "brush up your Shakespeare," the Bard's contentious Shrew is the story of two sisters. The younger, Bianca, is infinitely desirable for her temperament and beauty, while the elder, Katherine, is known to be quarrelsome and shrill. No suitor dares or desires to court Katherine, until Bianca's prospective lovers bribe Petruchio to wed her so that Bianca will at last be free to marry. (If you've seen 10 Things I Hate About You, this may sound familiar.) It's the way in which Petruchio "tames" Katherine through starvation and isolation that audiences have found problematic for decades. Per the Skylight audience guide: "While there's no doubt that Shrew portrays patriarchy at its worst, the question is, what is the play's attitude toward such behavior?"
Kiss Me Kate is a play within a play, as the actor's off-stage lives mirror their on-stage characters in a musical staging of The Taming of the Shrew. Lily and Fred, recently-divorced lead actors, squabble endlessly behind the scenes and explode on stage as Katherine and Petruchio. They treat each other appallingly, and it's a toss up as to whether he's more of a cad than she is a harpy.
The blow-for-blow way in which Lily and Fred battle is what makes this musical less cringe-inducing than scoffers would believe. Whether this is a product of the 1999 Broadway revival or the Skylight's own personal spin, it works. With slaps, spankings, lies, gambling, and infidelity, abusive relationships are the name of the game for the leads in Kiss Me Kate - but we aren't meant to take these relationships so seriously. Remove the buffoonery and sure, there are real problems. But keep the comedy and Cole Porter tunes and you've got a musical that has, thus far, stood the test of time.
For the Skylight, this is due in no small part to the comedic instincts, sensational voices, and dynamite chemistry between Rána Roman and Andrew Varela. Their first delightful duet, "Wunderbar," sparks undeniable life into Act One. From biting dialogue to physical comedy to genuine sizzle, Roman and Varela never once skip a beat.
Roman's feisty, brawling Lily is a downright hoot, her "I Hate Men" especially amusing. Varela amazes in how he can sing such lines as the ones in "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua" and leave one more in awe of his gorgeous baritone than appalled at his character's male chauvinism. The strength of every inch of this powerhouse couple's performance really carries the show. They succeed in creating characters who are at once as despicable as they are hilarious and sympathetic. For better or worse, these two deserve each other.
Other noteworthy performances are found in Kaylee Annable and Joe Capstick as former nightclub hoofers, Lois and Bill. Annable rakes in laughs as the ditzy redhead, reciting her Shakespearean lines with all the elegance and grace of Jean Hagen circa Singin' in the Rain. She's also not shy about belting her heart out, raking in applause to boot. As for Capstick, he's at his best in Act Two's "Bianca," where his mad tap-dancing skills, crazy-cool athleticism, and smooth agility really shine.
Then there are scene stealers Doug Jarecki and Kelly Doherty as Gangsters 1 and 2, respectively. Doherty's dry delivery is especially laugh-aloud funny, and the two make three encores of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" feel warranted. Adding Skylight to his long list of Milwaukee theaters, a nod must also be given to the wonderful Jonathan Gillard Daly who plays multiple roles with aplomb. As for the ensemble, there are moments where it feels the size of the Cabot stage is a bit restrictive. But in the end, swing moves fly and flip, the spry Sean Anthony Jackson hits his splits, and gorgeous choral harmonies wow the crowd.
So overall, how does this 1948 musical hold up in 2019? It depends how you look at it. Some see Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate a light, frothy farce never meant to be taken seriously. Others see it as a satirical battle of the sexes. Still others are quick to judge it at face value for its misogynistic tendencies. What's clear is Kiss Me Kate is still worth discussing - and with Ray Jivoff and Skylight at the helm, it's still worth delighting in 71 years later.
Photo credit: Ross Zentner