In a perfect world, the actors and actresses of a production get along. In a perfect world, there is no backstage drama. In a perfect world, that drama does not confuse and alter a production of The Taming of the Shrew. But this is not a perfect world as shown in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new perfectly glorious production of Kiss Me Kate, written by Samuel and Bella Spewack with music and lyrics by Cole Porter.
Shakepeare Theatre Company’s production of Kiss Me Kate, directed by Alan Paul, is a sumptuous rendition of that hilariously imperfect world. It’s colorful. It’s emotional. It’s rambunctiously funny. It’s fast-paced. It’s so well-sung and performed. And it’s so much fun!
This wonderful experience started with a fantastic opening number that set the tone for the entire production. In “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” the entire cast and crew cascaded around the stage in perfect harmony. Choreographed by Michele Lynch, the dancing was fast-paced and entertaining, with dancers leaping, twisting, and twirling in every direction. These dapper moves took on some glamour with Alejo Vietti’s fabulous costumes. Vietti’s job was to create a look and feel that resembled what we’d expect from a 1940’s rendition of Shakespeare. Complete with bright colors, over-the-top renaissance wear and an exceptional amount of tights, Vietti succeeded completely and it was apparent the moment the cast came out to perform the opening number. And during this number, various cast members interacted with the set, designed by James Noone, by rolling in and out armoires that kept the costumes. And with a fun set of lights and curtains that jolted precipitously over the actors, the feeling of a frantic, panic-stricken final rehearsal. Yet it was the players themselves who really projected that perfectly-timed essence of manic panic – particularly in that first number which set a high bar for the rest of the production.
And the rest of the production lived up to – and often surpassed – that highly set bar.
Lynch’s choreography was amazing in ‘Too Darn Hot” and, at one point, as the first act came to a close during the numbers “Cantiamo D’Amore” and “Finale Act 1: Kiss Me Kate,” the ensemble would devolve into a sort of organized chaos, with different members doing completely different dances and actions at different parts of the stage. Then, all at once, they would suddenly be in sync, having all individually twirled into unified motion. It was intensely satisfying and unbelievably eye-catching.
James Noone’s Sceneic Design is incredible. The production flipped quickly between the backstage drama and banter of the actors, and the on-stage play-within-a-play production of The Taming of the Shrew. As such, James Noone had to create sets for two different productions that could be changed with ease. It was stellar. The residences of the actors and the door to the backstage all sat on a large mobile surface which came forward during back-stage scenes and was again hidden during on-stage scenes. When needed, the interior of some of the residences rolled in and out with ease. The sets of The Taming of the Shrew were wonderful, seeming to come out of some groovy fantasy. They were large and intricate and were a visual treat on their own, even had there been no actors, no dances and no fabulous lighting – designed by Paul Miller – to complement them.
It was, however, the excellent acting and singing that drove this production to resounding applause. Christine Sherrill, playing the melodramatic, over-emotional wreck, Lilli Vanessi, and Robyn Hurder, playing lascivious, provocative lush Lois Lane, both delivered exceptional performances.
In her solo “Always True to You In My Fashion,” Hurder made her character unique with her strength, the independence, the sexualized persona, and the easy-going sense of humor. Using these characteristics, along with her stunning voice, Hurder established herself as a commanding force on stage.
As Bianca, in the play-within-the-play, Harder was less confident and less outgoing, but this spoke only to Lane’s inexperience acting, perfectly portrayed by Harder. That is, except for the number “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” in which Hurder, along with Clyde Alves, Brandon Bieber, and Con O’Shea-Creal, enacted an exhilarating tap-dance for the ages. The tap-dancing was frighteningly fast-paced and fun – yet the four cast-members appeared completely at ease with the difficulty of that moment, as if they could have gone on forever – and I wish they could have!
Sherill, as Vanessi, was equally stunning. In this role, she had the opportunity to explore the entire spectrum of emotion, from blind anger to blissful love and everything in between. Furthermore, Sherill’s ability to show Vanessi’s rage through Katherine, her role in the play-within-the-play, in “I Hate Men” was the highlight of the production, leaving the helpless audience to uncontrollable laughter. Then, in her number “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” Sherill was able to fully display her glowing voice. Her performance was a force of nature – one I will never forget.
Kiss Me Kate’s success is, to some extent, predicated on the quality of the chemistry between Sherill and Douglas Sills (Fred and Petruchio) as her counterpart both on and off stage. Off stage, Fred and Lilly have recently gone through a divorce and yet the love they continue to feel for each other bubbles through to the surface for both of them. With that love, and the divorce, comes an unkempt rage within both of them as they both grapple with jealousy, and their unresolved past.
Sills’ commanding voice is a show-stopper. His gorgeous renditions of “Were Thine That Special Face” and “Where is the Life That Late I Led?” and the Reprise of “So In Love (Reprise)” stole the show, and is some of the best singing I have ever heard on any stage. And when Sills and Sherrill’s voices blended together in “Wunderbar” – it was musical theater heaven!
Within the play, Sills’ character displays a callous pretentiousness fit only for a man who believes himself to be among the best-ever actors. It seemed to be well-founded in reality as Broadway veteran Sills’ ability as an actor was unparalleled in the show.
Bob Ari and Raymond Jaramillo McLead played the two casino thugs, sent to collect money from Sills. Together, they might have been the greatest force for ‘funny’ known to man. Their accents and short, faux-dramatic one liners were soon replaced by an almost goofy knowledge of literature and philosophical thought as they became more deeply intertwined in the unfolding drama. Their showstopper “Brush Up On Your Shakespeare¸” performed sans rehearsal when they are suddenly thrust into front stage by mistake, was simply grand, as were their respective performances.
The orchestra, conducted by James Cunningham, was relentless in its perfection. The members kept the tone of the production up-beat and fun while using rhythm and pace to discreetly shift between excitement, heart-break, dramatics, and love. It was particularly excellent when, during the wedding at the end, a very perfect baroque style of music oozed from the orchestra pit, perfectly situating the scene in historical context. Throughout this production, the orchestra similarly punctuated the other superb aspects of this production, tying everything together into one, cohesive and entertaining spectacle.
Kiss Me Kate is a grand success that has everything you could want: amazing tap-dancing, hearty laughs, acrobatics, stunning sets and lighting, exceptional acting, clever directing, and a classic score sung beautifully. But don’t take my word for it, go and check it out for yourself!
What a great gift we have been given for the holidays! Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Kiss Me Kate is simply WUNDERBAR!
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with an intermission.
Kiss Me Kate plays through Sunday January 3, 2016 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall– 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122 or purchase them online.