Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Also see Jeffrey's recent review of The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
Composer and lyricist Cole Porter was known for his wry wit, clever lyrics, and sophisticated musical style. In Kiss Me, Kate, his style is a perfect marriage to the writing style of the Spewacks. His musical talents pour forth romantic sounding melodies such as "So in Love" and "Wunderbar," and he handles the construction of songs designed to showcase choreography, such as "Too Darn Hot" and "Tom, Dick or Harry," masterfully. His real gift to Kiss Me, Kate, however, is in his painting of characters and finding of humor through the lyrics of his songs. He teases the audience with provocative lyrics such as those in "Always True to You in My Fashion" ("There's an oil man known as Tex who is keen to give me checks, And his checks, I fear, mean that sex is here to stay!."), cynical observations such as those in "I Hate Men" ("Don't wed a trav'ling salesman though a tempting Tom he may be. For on your wedding night he may be off to far Araby. While he's away in Mandalay it is thee who have the baby. Oh, I hate men!"), and humorous wordplay and rhyme schemes such as in "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" ("If your blonde won't respond when you flatter 'er, tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer"). It all sets the stage for a tongue-in-cheek look at the backstage world of these performers, and the larger-than-life nature of their individual romantic relationships.
The year is 1948. The place is the Ford's Theatre in Baltimore. And it all starts on one very warm day in June (hence the song "Too Darn Hot"). Director, producer, and star Fred Graham (Peter Reardon) is attempting to mount a musical version of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew with himself as Petruchio and his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Sally Wilfert) as his co-star Kate. His own preening self-centered behavior is understandably at odds with the temperamental nature of his second-rate film star of an ex-wife. All the while, as they fight like cats and dogs, she calms herself by clinging to her new romantic relationship with a rich and powerful General in Washington DC (Steve Carroll). Wilfert has a beautiful singing voice and a commanding stage presence. She manages to remain ruffled and indignant while falling shy of being unlikeable, because we see she is still in love with Fred through it all. Her version of "I Hate Men" is most enjoyable. Reardon in turn is amiable and charming. His bravado doesn't come off so much as conceit as it is tempered with a bit of self-mockery. His broad smile and tremendous ease on stage serves as the calling card for both the actor and his character. He is at his best in the song "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" Together they both have great timing, nicely control the pacing of the show, and have a firm handle on the heat that feeds the fire of their characters' relationship.
A secondary romance concerns actress Lois Lane (Shayla Benoit), a newbie who has been hired to play Bianca, and her boyfriend Bill (Antuan "Magic" Raimone), who is to play Lucentio. While Bill must accept a compulsively flirtatious Lois, she must accept his compulsive gambling. In fact, Bill arrives at the theatre on this particular day having just lost $10,000. He is quickly followed by two gangsters (Danny Rutigliano and John Treacy Egan) who have come to ensure he makes good on the promissory note he has signed. When Lilli threatens to walk out mid-show, Fred convinces the gangsters to stay close to her to prevent her from leaving. It is proposed on the pretext of protecting the box office assets of the show, so they can get their money back, but Fred has other reasons to keep Lilli there as he too still has romantic feelings for her.
Benoit captures the essence of the coquette of this time period. She is a sweet if nasal sounding combination of innocence and knowing. Her well sung and acted performance of "Always True to You in My Fashion" is one of the strongest numbers in the show. Raimone displays considerable grace and agility as a dancer, particularly in "Tom, Dick or Harry," but does not have the acting or singing chops to match. He seems far less seasoned than the other leads, and fails to establish a believable character even alongside actors with far fewer lines, such as his partners in that song, Gremio (Mike Baerga) and Hortensio (Roddy Kennedy). I have always enjoyed watching cameo performances emerge from the mix of the ensemble. Actors must sometimes create a complete story from very little, so it is a treat to see people work those parts for all they are worth. Baerga and Kennedy, along with Peter Galman as Baptista and Shain Stroff as Ralph, provide memorable character moments while on stage.
While adhering to the style of the period, the choreography and costumes for this production are fresh and at times unexpected. Without question, the dancing highlight of the show is the second act opener "Too Darn Hot." The number is bursting with energy and smoldering with heat. Brandon Contreras as Paul leads the number with surprising strength and energy. Choreographer Marcos Santana even finds a way to make "We Sing of Love," one of my least favorite musical theatre dance numbers of all time, interesting by making it sensual.
Of course the most memorable character moment of all in the show is our two gangsters, played by Rutigliano and Egan, singing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." They unabashedly ham their way through this number with two built-in reprises. Whether clad in their intentionally ill-fitting pin-stripe suits, or tights and feathered headpieces, they are a walking sight gag. Add to that the difference in their size, their understated mugging, and general cluelessness and you have a recipe for comedy at its best.
The original production of Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway on December 30, 1948, at the New Century Theatre, where it ran for nineteen months before transferring to the Shubert. It ran for a total of 1,077 performances and received five Tony Awards, including the first Tony Award presented for Best Musical. Kiss Me, Kate was revived on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on November 18, 1999. It closed after 881 performances on December 30, 2001. The 1999 production also received five Tony Awards.
Composer and songwriter Cole Porter's work also includes the musicals Anything Goes, Fifty Million Frenchman and DuBarry Was a Lady. His best known songs include "Night and Day," "Be a Clown," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "Love for Sale," "Begin the Beguine," "You're the Top," "Too Darn Hot," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "I Love Paris," "Just One of Those Things" and "In The Still of the Night." His often bawdy lyrics and over-privileged personal life earned him a reputation that was a bit risqué. Though the volume of his work speaks for itself, Porter received but two Academy Award nominations during his lifetime. Alongside songwriters such as Irving Berlin, and George and Ira Gershwin, his songs live on today as part of the Great American Songbook.
Kiss Me, Kate will be appearing at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through March 27, 2016. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre is located at 1001 Indiantown Rd. (just off of A1A) in Jupiter, Florida. For tickets and complete information on the theatre's offerings, contact them by phone at 561-575-2223 or 800-445-1666, or online at www.jupitertheatre.org.
*Designates member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
^Designates member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, an independent national labor union.
+Designates member of the United Scenic Artists, a labor union and professional association of Designers, Artists and Craftspeople.