Opera House Theatre Company continues its great season with Cole Porter’s magnificent “Kiss Me, Kate” on the main stage at Thalian Hall. With book by Bella and Samuel Spewack and score by the first Tony Award Winner for a musical, Cole Porter, the writing alone ensures a great evening.
Taking the Bard’s beloved play-within-a-play motif, “Kiss Me, Kate” follows the trials and tribulations of Lilli Vanessi (Kendra Goehring-Garrett) and Fred Graham (Nygel Robinson), a recently divorced couple of professional actors starring as Katherine and Petruchio in a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Of course, they are still in love but are bound and determined to make as big a mess of their lives (and everyone else’s) as they can. Likewise, Bill (Alex Stevenonson), who portrays Lucentio in their show, has made some bad decisions, which results in two gangsters (J.R. Rodriguez and Chris Rickert) taking a sudden “interest” in the show. They are sent by their boss to protect the head gangster’s future money. Shakespearean hilarity, coupled with Porter’s wit and a fabulous score, make for a brilliant combination.
I fully admit: I have been looking forward to this production since I heard Kendra Goehring-Garrett and Nygel Robinson would be playing Kate and Petruchio under the direction of Ray Kennedy. (Anyone who saw Kennedy’s “Oklahoma!” last year will understand why.) Goehring-Garrett and Robinson played Laurie and Curley and shared chemistry that only can be described as elemental. Both their voices are divine. As well, they dance wonderfully and act beautifully together. They are a “triple threat” squared. Together the performers create something truly greater than both of them. Their renditions of “So In Love” are simply hypnotic. (Sigh.)
Fans of Tre Cotton (Harpo in “The Color Purple”) who have missed his absence since his move to University of Washington will adore him as the world’s least enviable stage manger, Ralph. Caught between two fierce personalities with a show to protect, he’s doing his best.
“Kiss Me, Kate” is a veritable who’s who of favorites: Tracy Byrd, Teri Harding, Caitlin Becka, Jason Aycock, Annie Marsh, Blaine Allen Mowrer, Bob Workmon, Debra Gillingham, Dru Loman, and Beth Swindell only but name a few. Though the whole show is fabulous, my favorite song-and-dance number is “Too Darn Hot,” which opens Act II. It features the incomparable Byrd and the ensemble performers. If that doesn’t get audiences snapping their fingers and tapping their toes, they simply aren’t paying attention.
Few people write erudite humor the way Porter did until “Monty Python” picked up the torch. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” a humorous, melodic tribute to the classics, is among the best of the genre. (Even Tom Leher would have liked to have written it.) Rodriguez and Rickert sell it on their way out of the story with such glee that copies of
“The Riverside Shakespeare” must start flying off the shelves after every performance. The song’s lyrics proclaim: “Brush up your Shakespeare/Start quoting him now/ Brush up your Shakespeare/And the women you will wow.” As a chorus it’s a bare taste of what this duo sells (complete with suggestive dance moves that Justin Beiber would envy). The joy they radiate remains positively infectious.
Part of what makes “Kiss Me, Kate” so fabulous is the constant folding in upon itself with that show-within-a-show motif. The soft opening, with the curtain up and the stage fully visible, as the odd actor wanders through to mop or adjust the ghost light sets a tone of anticipation ratcheted up by the opening number “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.” Music director Lorene Walsh conducts a 12-piece band infected with the Potter bug. They run for the big finale with all their might. They are simply awesome, and the sound transports the audience completely.
Between the two of them, set designer Terry Collins and lighting designer Jeff Loy, seamlessly functioning within two realities can coexist; onstage and offstage, the story cohesively blends. Collins’ set recalls legos; it expands and fits together based on the play’s needs. Loy opts for lighting that alternately pulses and retracts, highlighting Goehring-Garrett and Robinson’s dances toward and away from each other. It is incredibly subtle up to the point that Robinson is reduced to a pin-spot onstage during his solo reprise of “So In Love.” (Then it is abundantly clear how alone and in a corner he really is.) In a group of such vibrant and vivacious people as this cast, the aesthetic choice renders a special kind of loneliness.
Director Kennedy moves 43 people around the stage, plus he manages additional offstage singing from Erik Maasch and Lauren Mazzola. The sound is big! Juli Harvey superbly costumes all of them in post-war period clothing. Think about it: 43 people costumed, including several changes by principal performers. That’s part of what big-stage musicals are about.
Few directors revel in gilded-era musical theatre the way Kennedy does, but that genre is truly his home. His production of “Kiss Me, Kate,” though filled with lots of moving parts and multi-layered humor (some that even Cole Porter couldn’t have imagined is mined from this script—the Woolworth’s joke, for example), is exactly what it should be: phenomenal singing, marvelous dancing and acting that whisks theatre-goers away.
Through humor the eternal problem of love and lust is explored. Great acting creates a believable resolution.
Kiss Me, Kate
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Fri.-Sun., Aug. 8th-10th, 15th-17th 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.