The Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater, in Hagerstown, MD, decided to see what happened when you have a musical within a musical and add a large helping of Shakespeare into the mix. The result is a delightful production of Cole Porter’s 1948 hit, Kiss Me, Kate, directed by Laura J. Martin and Scott Ruble, with music direction by Jonas Dawson, and Choreography by Ray C. Shaw.
A troupe of travelling performers are presenting a musical production of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, but when the leads, Fred Graham/Petruchio and Lilli Vanessi/Katherine (Andrew Baughman and Laura J. Martin), are a divorced couple life begins to imitate art which quickly moves from backstage into the production onstage. Add to this a flirtatious ingénue Lois Lane (Hope Wolford) with a boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Scott Ruble) who has a gambling problem and gangsters (Lee Merriman and Russell Nye) who are trying to collect a debt, then hilarity ensues.
Andrew Baughman is perfectly cast as the overly-dramatic leading man and lothario – Fred Graham/Petruchio. His comic timing is impeccable, and he had ladies blushing in the audience as he sang “Where Is the Life That Late I Led” to some of those seated near the stage. Musically he performed all the numbers masterfully, but highlights were “Were Thine That Special Face” and “So in Love”, which he gave more of a 1940’s jazz interpretation. This was a nice change to the character because it showed his softer, more romantic side.
Laura J. Martin did an excellent job playing Lilli Vanessi and Katherine – the two shrews. At first, Lilli’s shrewishness was not as obvious and I was a little concerned, but once Laura sang “I Hate Men” as Katherine, the shrewish temperament kept boiling higher and higher as both Lilli and Katherine. Her beautiful red hair really added to the fiery temperament of her characters. Laura’s transformation from shrew to loving, submissive wife was very believable as well.
New to the Playhouse is Hope Wolford who played Lois Lane/Bianca. Hope was absolutely adorable as Lois, who flirted and wrapped men around her little finger, but whose heart really belonged to Bill Calhoun, played by Scott Ruble, who also played Lucentio. After finding out Bill had lost a large sum of money while gambling and then signed Fred’s name on the IOU, the two of them perform the delightful number, “Why Can’t You Behave?” As Bianca and Lucentio, they also perform “Tom, Dick, or Harry” with her other two suitors, Hortensio and Gremio, played by Ryan Perry and Rennes Carbaugh respectively. The number was an audience favorite. Hope was a breath of fresh air every time she took the stage.
The two men who completely stole the show though were the gangsters who had a love of culture and Shakespeare played by Lee Merriman and Russell Nye. When they come to collect the debt owed from Mr. Graham, he convinces them that they have to make sure that Miss Vanessi can’t leave the show for a week so he can raise the money needed. These two then proceed to dress up in Shakespearian garb and bumble around through the production of Shrew. Their antics where hysterical, and when they sing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” in their final scene, they left the stage to cheers from the audience after two encores.
Not only did this production have strong leads, the supporting cast and ensemble were just as talented. David Porterfield was quite enjoyable as Harry Trevor/Baptista. Dan Ritchey did a wonderful job as Ralph, the stage manager.
At the top of Act 2, Andre Brown, who played Paul, performed “Too Darn Hot” in reference to the heat, but it could have also been referring to his beautiful voice. Vocally, the ensemble was excellent, but I wish they had been featured more in bigger production numbers rather than generally placed upstage. I was really looking forward to a big dance number with “Too Darn Hot,” but that unfortunately didn’t happen.
One moment that I really enjoyed and I feel really added something special was the quartet of dancers: a young man, James Wright, and three lovely ladies: Julia Becker, Marley Mueller, and Erin Light; who danced while Petruchio sang “Were Thine That Special Face.” That was a beautiful addition to an already lovely number.
Travis Fouche did a wonderful job with the lighting and sound design to set the mood of the show while also taking on the duties of stage manager. Costuming by Barbie Gross was lovely for both the scenes set in the 1940s and for the Shrew sequences.
Kiss Me Kate is perfect for the whole family. There is enough slapstick comedy entwined within the Shakespeare that even young kids can find things at which to laugh.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with a 20-minute intermission.
Kiss Me Kate plays through April 23, 2016 at Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater – 44 North Potomac Street, in Hagerstown, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 739-7469, or purchase them online.