Monday, July 2, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 79, A Review: Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate" (Summer Theatre of New Canaan)

By James V. Ruocco

It comes from what's typically known as the Golden Age of Broadway musicals.
But there is nothing old, dated or dusty about Summer Theatre of New Canaan's glorious and sunny revival of Cole Porter's timeless musical classic "Kiss, Me Kate."
It sings.
It soars.
It dazzles.
It excites.
It tingles.
It contains moments of tenderness, warmth and dizzying joie-de-vire.
It bursts with wit and invention.
It unfolds with the magic and usurp of a three-dimensional, pop-up musical vintage songbook.
There's even a playful dancing donkey.

In short, what's not to like?

Everything about this production, which is staged inside a pristine-perfect tent in the great outdoors  of New Canaan High School's Dunning Field back lot, is exactly right: the casting; the direction; the music; the dancing; the conducting; the orchestra; the costumes; the set design; the lighting design; the story; the dialogue.

There's so much generated charm, pulse and savvy in this snappy revival of Cole Porter's 1948 runaway Broadway hit, you'll not only want to savor every minute of it, but want to purchase a ticket or two to a subsequent showing of your choice. That's how great and memorable this production is.

To stage "Kiss, Me Kate," Summer Theatre of New Canaan has enlisted the talents of theater and opera director Allegra Libonati whose directorial credits include "South Pacific," "Carousel," "Romeo and Juliet" "The Taming of the Shrew," "My Fair Lady" and "Twelfth Night." Well versed in the magic, the thrill and the theatricality of the big, old-fashioned Rolls-Royce of Broadway musicals, Libonati delivers and delivers and delivers.
For nearly 2 hrs. and 40 minutes, she enthralls her audience. She excites her audience. She cajoles her audience. She surprises her audience. She stimulates her audience. And, she thrills her audience. This is her show from top to bottom and it merrily unfolds under her tutelage in every vibrant shade and  color of the rainbow.

Here, her directorial choices for "Kiss Me, Kate" are exhilarating, confident, bold, brazen and brimming with complete originality. She's also not afraid to take chances, experiment, try something completely new, tweak or adjust a line or two or invent some marvelous, unique blocking or stage movement to bring additional shading, color and humor to her interpretation. Whatever she does, it justifiably reflects the show's engaging themes, its varied plot lines,  its colorful characters, its period jokes, its vaudevillian shtick, its double and triple takes, its sexual innuendo, its Pirandellian allure and its ripe, inventive musicality.

There's also a wonderful freshness to her directorial touch, a palpable affection for the comings-and-goings of both the backstage and onstage stories and a deft, beautifully timed rhythm to the actual piece, which beautifully kicks off with the playful, opening number "Another Op’nin,' Another Show."  The latter begins with a solo voice and a few notes tapped out on the piano before it erupts into a huge production number of music, song, dance and character introductions. It's dazzling, frenetic, theatrical fun as it sets the wheels spinning for the musical story that's about to follow.

The plot, in a nutshell, goes something like this. Framed against the backdrop of an out-of-town tryout for the musical version of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," the production  charts the on and off-stage conflicts between Fred Graham, the show's director, producer and star (he doubles as Petruchio) and Lilli Vanessi, his ex-wife and leading lady (she plays Kate in "Shrew"). A secondary sub-plot concerns Lois Lane, the bubbly actress playing Bianca in the Shakespearean musical and her not-so-savvy gambler boyfriend Bill (in "Shrew," he is cast as Lucentio), who owes some local gangsters $10,000. Worse yet, the IOU he has written, is signed Fred Graham.

As "Kiss Me, Kate" evolves, Libonati keeps the musical rapidly spinning on its toes, but firmly rooted in the 1940's time period from whence it came. Every actor's move, every gesture, every smirk, every position, every nuance, every crooked smile, every mood swing, every line delivery cries 1940's. Elsewhere, she knows how to fully utilize Julia Noulin-Merat's colorful, workable set design to full advantage, thus, moving the actors about on every playing level, from top to bottom, without unobtrusiveness. She also knows the period, the nostalgia, the music and the 1940s humor inside out and often gives her actors crafty bits of  marvelous, inventive stagecraft which they toss off effortlessly. This, in turn, keeps "Kiss Me, Kate" in top, elevated form right through to the big, splashy Act II finale, where love conquers all, everyone lives happily ever after and the music builds and builds to its rewarding, justified, perfectly timed crescendo.

Musically, Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" is one of the most vibrant and melodic musical scores from the late 1940's. Full of wit, passion and brashness, it contains the composer's quintessential trunk of musical treasures including "Another Op’nin’ Another Show," "Why Can't You Behave?," "Too Darn Hot," "Wunderbar," ''Always True to You (In My Fashion)," "So In Love," "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," "Were Thine That Special Face" and " Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" The audience, in turn, knows every single one of these songs and welcomes them with open arms like a long lost friend. It's impossible not hooked or enamored.  And the cast, fueled by the unbridled energy of every single person seated in the audience, willingly obliges.

Moreover, everything that happens musically is tied seamlessly into the show's onstage and offstage machinations without any form of calculation, forced break or interruption. Then, again, that's what makes a show of this caliber stand out. No one sings Cole Porter just to sing Cole Porter. No one dances just to dance. No song introduction is uttered just to be uttered. Every musical number in "Kiss Me, Kate" comes complete with pungent, lively dialogue that signals the start of yet another memorable show tune and rightly so. The overall effect: smiles, applause, more smiles, more applause.

At Summer Theatre of New Canaan, musical direction for "Kiss Me, Kate" is provided by Kenneth Gartman who hits all the right notes while conducting a first-class orchestra of musicians who willingly snap, crackle and pop as they bring the popular Cole Porter score to life. Mind you, there's a lot going on here as the play shifts gears to noticeably showcase a musical story drawn from two different worlds...opera and Broadway musicals..that blends together as one.

As the production unfolds, Gartman and company deliver the goods 100 per cent while putting together some of the finest Broadway conducting and musical orchestrations audiences have heard for quite some time in an outdoor venue. Throughout "Kiss Me Kate," Gartman emphasizes the tart, playful and social jest and innuendo of Porter's catchy music and lyrics, its brazen red and purple mood swings, its acerbic menu of sex, mischief and melancholy and its tangy machismo, overt chauvinism, blind patriotism and fight for male-female equality.

Gartman, deft musician that he is, also instructs his cast to playfully emphasize Porter's lyrical, bold wordplay, its chic insouciance, its sophisticated rhythms and tempos, its dizzying promiscuity, its comic sass and heated sexuality. Every musical number is shifted with grace, polish and ease. Nothing is rushed or quickly moved forward for time's sake. The cast of leads, supporting players and ensemble members deliver full-voiced interpretations sparkled with high, feverish energy. And the actual harmonizing in certain musical numbers is voiced with such pitch-perfect, pristine accuracy, the overall sound and delivery is actually better than that of the same harmonization heard in the Broadway and London revivals of "Kiss Me, Kate" a few decades ago. Well done, Mr. Gartman.

Dancing.....splendid dancing, that everything in a musical of this caliber and choreographer Doug Shankman  dishes up some lively choreography that reflects that of those popular 1940's MGM Technicolor musicals, offset with the flair and stylization of Hermes Pan and Bob Fosse, all rolled into one. With "Another Op'nin', Another Show"  he feverishly captures the hustle, bustle, frenzy and chaos of actors arriving for an anxiously awaited out-of-town tryout. "Tom, Dick or Harry." in turn, simmers with the sexual energy and fever of three male suitors pining over one very attractive, single female while "Too Darn Hot" ignites a hot, steamy night where an entire company of actors express their hidden desires in raw, impassioned choreographic style.

Like those around him, Shankman always makes the right moves in terms of staging, movement, couplings, dance-story advancement and period dance tableaux. High-charged, buoyant or sweet and simple, all of it is ovation worthy. On stage, the cast lap it up most agreeably. And under the tent, the smiling, appreciative, thoroughly entertained audience applaud madly until their hands hurt. Nonetheless, it's all completely justified.

Playing the dual role of the flamboyant director, producer and star Fred Graham as well as the dashing, manly Petruchio in the Bard's Shakespearean play, David Sattler is one of the finest actors and baritone's to bring the marvelous Cole Porter musical score to life. Vocally, his lush, full, brooding voice is made for this type of Broadway musical and perhaps every other musical to boot, including "Chess," "Les Miserables" and "Carousel."

As an actor, his bold, authoritative leading man persona is ready made for the twisty, romantic and glamorous situations of the story, which he tosses off with abundant, cleverly timed energy and panache. His pure, powerful vocal prowess also communicates the intended meaning required for his character's many vocals including "I've Come to Wife It Weathily in Padua,"' "Were Thine That Special Face" and "Where is the Life That Late I Led?"

The striking, alluring Mary McNulty possesses the icy cool chicness befitting both a film star and a Broadway leading lady, thus, making her the perfect choice for the imperious diva Lilli Vanessi and the sharp-tongued, independent-minded Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew." Like Sattler, she offers a shrewd, vivid and dynamic portrait of two very different characters, both of whom she reenacts with creative, ingenious finesse.

Vocally, her rich, plush, bright soprano voice is absolutely amazing. The torchy emotion behind "So In Love" is splendidly delivered as is Porter's broad, odious salute to the male populace "I Hate Men." "I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple" also achieves the rhythmic, passionate greatness Porter intended for Katherine's final speech in "The Taming of the Shrew." It too is performed with grace, command and style.

In the role of the vivacious, saucy and flirty Lois Lane and the equally amorous Bianca in "Shrew," Rachel MacIsaac is in fine form, vocally and comically, displaying the same showstopping vamp, verve and comic ingenuity that Amy Spangler did in the 1999 Broadway revival.

Her splendid, energetic delivery of the campy "Always True to You (In My Fashion)" is performed in thrilling, excited fashion much to the delight of everyone in the audience.  Elsewhere," Her "Tom, Dick and Harry" is expressively rich and pungent as is the sweet and sentimental reprimand "Why Can't You Behave?"

As Lane's attractive, ne'er-do-well boyfriend Bill Calhoun who doubles as Lucentio, one of Bianca's suitors in "The Taming of Shrew," Tim Falter is ideally matched opposite MacIssac. It's a role he invests with devilish relish and finesse. And one he believably communicates with natural, playful ease and showmanship. His big tap dance number "Bianca" in Act II is sweetly sung and energetically danced, reflecting the style and sweep of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

The casting of Brett Alters and Brian Silliman as the musical's dimwitted, flat-footed, gut-toting  gangsters is a stoke of genius (on every one's part, that is) that keeps their hilarious comic shenanigans, priceless deadpans and double takes front and center whenever they're on stage. They are masters of broad, vaudevillian artistry and when it comes time for Porter's comic gem "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (the duo get accidentally caught on stage and are forced to improvise a comic salute to the Bard's plays), they literally stop the show over and over with their hilariously stage maneuvers and purposely repeated curtain calls. Both actors not only have great fun with their big stage musical moment, but surpass that of the two different sets of actors who played the same parts in the Broadway and London revivals of "Kiss Me, Kate."

"Kiss Me, Kate" is sumptuous, luscious, inspired fun. The musical-within-a-musical plot line is deliciously wicked, cheeky, witty and the absolute embodiment of a wonderfully bygone era. The Cole Porter musical score is dazzling, savvy and marvelously intelligent with one hit show tune following another. The entire cast nails every single Porter show tune with vocal perfection. Allegra Libonati's direction is bold, brazen and passionate. Kenneth Gartman's spirited musical direction and Doug Shankman's zesty choreography is splendidly re-imagined here. And the thunderous applause that greets every single musical number and every performance is proof positive that Summer Theatre of New Canaan is the place to be this July.
You do not want to miss this one. Night's at the theater don't come more enjoyable than this.
And oh, yes, let's not forget that dancing donkey .

Photos by Summer Theatre of New Canaan

"Kiss Me, Kate" is being staged at Summer Theatre of New Canaan (11 Farm Rd., New Canaan, CT), now through July 29.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 966-4634.

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