Review: ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ at Annapolis Shakespeare Company

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Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of Kiss Me, Kate is a treat for the eyes and ears. Directed by Sally Boyett, this version of the 1948 musical with a book by Sam and Bella Spewack and music and lyrics by Cole Porter (his biggest hit) combines wonderful singing and dancing with fabulous costumes and inventive lighting. It is the perfect show to end this season’s performances on their main stage.

The ensemble of Kiss Me, Kate. Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Benjamin Russell and Robin Weiner have excellent chemistry together as Fred and Lilly, divorced actors performing The Taming of the Shrew together. Weiner stares daggers at Russell on her first appearance onstage, then stalks off. They capture the physical nature of their relationship, blows, kicks, and spankings.

In the first “Kiss Me, Kate” number, Russell drags Weiner with him, then carries her over his shoulder offstage. And yet, their passion is also evident. In “Wuderbar,” they joyously dance together, remembering happier times. In “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” Weiner kneels at Russell’s feet, throwing off her tiara at his request; Russell quickly joins her on one knee. They are much more loving in the “Kiss Me, Kate” reprise, embracing and kissing each other.

Both Russell and Weiner display a wide emotional range. Weiner gives an incredibly moving performance in “So in Love,” giving a melancholy note to the romantic song. In “I Hate Men” she stalks the stage while hilariously putting down men, sitting down on a bench in exasperation. Russell fills “Were Thine That Special Face” with romance, making his wooing seem authentic. He wittily recounts his romantic escapades in “Where is the Life That Late I Led” before falling asleep on a bench.

Matt Acquard and Jennie Bissell also work well together as Bill and Lois, playing Lucentio and Bianca. In “Why Can’t You Behave” their passion smolders on stage as Bissell yanks Acquard’s cigarette out of his mouth before they embrace. At the end of “Bianca,” as Acquard sings gleefully of Lois’ charms, he picks up Bissell and carries her offstage. In “Always True to You in My Fashion,” Bissell joyously sings of her sex appeal, while throwing comforting words to a suspicious Acquard.

Zach Brewster-Geisz and Nate Ruleaux play the gangsters Matty and Rocky with great comic menace. They push Russell down several times as he tries to get up and pursue Weiner across the stage. Their duet in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” shines with wonderful wordplay and dancing.

Ian Charles sizzles as Paul, leaping and flipping across the stage in “Too Darn Hot!” He leads the ensemble in the red-hot number, spinning Christine Asero as Hattie across the stage. He is wonderful to watch.

Robin Weiner and Benjamin Russell in Kiss Me, Kate. Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Salydon Boyken does a wonderful job as scenic designer, creating three sets on one stage that can be easily switched around. At the start of the show, the stage is bare, with a wooden floor and closed barn-style doors in the back.

For the Shrew scenes, a backdrop split into four movable screens is set up in the back. Props, including a cart, a big tub, and tables and chairs, roll in when needed. To the right is a door leading offstage, and above that is a screened window that opens for Lilli to look out. The backdrop screens form walls for the dressing rooms, with small desks, chairs, and a sofa rolling in. Everything is cleared for the backstage scenes.

Costume Designer Sandra Spence has fashioned beautiful outfits and did double duty since most of the actors have several costumes. Jacob Mueller does excellent work as lighting designer, using changes in the lighting to help with scene changes. The lights grow darker for “So in Love,” making the scene even softer and romantic. Spotlights shine for some of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and lighting effects help set up the song. Towards the end of “Too Darn Hot!” the lights turn red, reflecting the intensity.

Marc Irwin brings out the songs wonderfully as musical director. Leading the orchestra from behind a spiral staircase to the left of the stage, he lets the music perfectly blend with the actors’ singing, always coming in clear without overwhelming the vocals.

Sally Boyett does a remarkable job as director and choreographer. It feels like the actors are in constant motion, dancing complex numbers, either in solo performances or formations. They make it look easy, and incredibly compelling to watch. They effortlessly switch back and forth from Shakespeare’s language to mid-20th-century slang, and deliver Cole Porter’s lyrics, with their witty wordplay, naturally. Kiss Me, Kate is a fun show to start spring, and a joy to watch. Don’t miss it!

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.

Kiss Me Kate plays through June 3, 2018, at Annapolis Shakespeare Company – 1804 West Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-415-3513, or purchase them online.