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Review: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, PA

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The Broadway Musical flowered in the years following World War II.  Many of the musicals produced during this “golden age” remain treasures of our lyric theater. One of the best will always be Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, the musical with something for everyone. Fans of Porter’s 30’s musicals like Anything Goes will recognize the sassy beat in “Too Darn Hot” and “Tom, Dick or Harry.” Operetta fans adore “Wunderbar” little noticing that the song actually satirizes the form. Porter also proved that he could write a musical version of Shakespeare’s Shrew had he wanted to, with “Cantiamo D’Amore” and the title song. The famed Porter “list” song is represented with the wonderful “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” while “So In Love” remains one of the greatest love ballads.

Lilli (Jennie Eisenhower) and Fred (Sean Thompson) sing Cole Porter's song "Wunderbar." Photo by Mark Garvin.

Lilli (Jennie Eisenhower) and Fred (Sean Thompson) sing “Wunderbar.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

The book by Sam And Bella Spewack, cleverly combines The Taming of the Shrew with a parallel backstage story that frequently interrupts the onstage action. All is this is dusted with Porter’s naughty wit, that today seems less shocking than just plain funny. The Equity Company at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse delivers this in a totally professional production.

The Playhouse is tiny, with very limited seating and stage space. The director, Peter Reynolds, and the technical crew somehow never allow this to be a problem. Choreographer Maggie Anderson, uses the tiny stage inventively, with “Too Darn Hot” and “I’ve Come to Wife It Wealthily in Padua” as standouts.

Fight Choreographer Joshua Kachnycz’s seduction scene is handled splendidly. Colin Mcllvaine’s settings are, of necessity, simple. The main setting is backstage with occasional cleverly designed drops to indicate when the onstage portions begin. Jeff Sturdivant’s costume designs include accurate late 40’s clothing, including some hilarious ladies underwear, as well as bright musical-theater-period costumes for Shrew. James Leitner’s musical theater lighting is spot on.

Jennie Eisenhower leads the company with a compelling, beautifully sung Lilli/Kate. Her Lilli is an experienced theater animal who has undergone the ups and downs of a maddening, unstable but rewarding profession. She brings the maturity, humor and desperation to a diva nearing the end of not quite successful career. Her counterpart-costar-ex-husband Fred should have all these same qualities, but next to Eisenhower, Sean Thompson appears uncomfortable in the role of Fred. The complexities of the couple’s relationships never quite play out as they should.

Petruchio (Sean Thompson) and Kate (Jennie Eisenhower). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Petruchio (Sean Thompson) and Kate (Jennie Eisenhower). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Thompson is, however, a terrific Petruchio, bringing youthful bravado and panache to the role. His swashbuckling renditions of “Were Thine That Special Face” and “Where is the Life of Late I Led.” are showstoppers.

The supporting cast features excellent singer/dancers in multiple roles.  Special mention must, of course, be made of the gangsters, mugged in the best Guys and Dolls fashion by Peter Bisgaier and Sonny Leo.

The Gangsters (Peter Bisgaier and Sonny Leo) sing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Gangsters (Peter Bisgaier and Sonny Leo) sing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

Act II has, unfortunately, chosen the 1999 “revisal” version of the script and score. Broadway of the 1990’s discovered that revivals of older musicals could succeed with modern audiences, but, for a time, it was felt that the shows needed to be “updated” to appeal to the bridge and tunnel out of towners. This version features a badly rejiggered opening number that is in a totally different style from the rest of the show. There are also some strangely out of place new jokes, the most noticeable of which the rewriting of Lilli’s fiancée from a sleepy Southerner to a Douglas MacArthur military type. Since this does not allow Fred to seduce Lilli with his enticing speech of theater lore, the scene loses impact.

These productions, starting with Guys and Dolls, and including Damn Yankees and Annie Get Your Gun also featured cartoon performances geared to the back row of the mezzanine. This quality remains in this performance, although the performers relaxed considerably in the second act with Mindy Dougherty as Bianca/Lois performing to a stadium throughout. The tiny Ambler theater offers some intimate delights.

The music has been rewritten extensively for this revisal and many moments are missed. Gone are the complex harmonies of “Tom, Dick or Harry,” while the new arrangement of “So in Love” seems to have tumbled out of a piano bar. The recent Broadway successes of South Pacific and The King and I, using the full Russell Bennett orchestrations, now prove how wrongheaded the revisal era was. Thankfully, the original version is still available.

Those who disliked Orchestrator Don Sebesky’s modernization of Robert Russell Bennett’s fine originals will be pleased that Musical Director Michael Pacifico is the entire ensemble at the piano. His playing of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is a particular delight.

Tickets are in demand at Act II Playhouse where Kiss Me Kate’s run has been extended through June 26th. Run and buy them while you can.

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with an intermission.

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Kiss Me Kate plays through Sunday June 26, 20016 at Act II Playhouse-56 E. Butler Ave, Ambler, PA.  For tickets call the box office at (215) 654-0200, or purchase them online.

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