MAGNA — Kiss Me, Kate is a classic Broadway show that follows the “play within a play” plotline. The story (by Samuel Spewack and Bella Spewack) revolves around a cast of a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as they perform in Baltimore, in hopes of to heading to Broadway. The fictional cast includes an ex-husband and wife who are forced to work together again and a young lady who likes to flirt with everyone, which frustrates her boyfriend—a gambler constantly getting into trouble. All this interpersonal drama creates tension off stage, but also on stage during The Taming of the Shrew. With music and lyrics by Cole Porter, the show has many familiar showtunes throughout, and has been a favorite in the theatre scene for many years.
At the Empress, one of the best aspects of numerous shows I have seen is the costuming. And the costumes creayed by Diane Pope and Mary Ellen Smith for Kiss, Me Kate are another shining example of this. One of the challenges this duo faced was the fact that the costume design essential had to cover two distinct time periods, the Shakespearean time of the “show within the show” and the post-WWII of the actors. In facing such a challenge, often theatre companies can focus on one era more than another. However Smith and Pope truly paid attention to both eras and provided appropriate and esthetically pleasing costumes for the entire show.
Several of the cast members and musical numbers stood out to me. First, Emily Preston, who played Lois Lane, a young actress trying to get her big break, was an excellent character actor. She clearly made Lois desperate to make it big and willing to do just about anything to succeed. Preston also has a strong voice and is privileged to sing some of the most enjoyable songs of the show. I particularly enjoyed the number “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” which also had some entertaining dancing. Choreographer Chalese Craig incorporated all three suitors into that number well, allowing the audience to see the competition for Bianca, the younger sister of the shrew in the classic play.
Bill Callhoun, played by Curtis Nash, has a bit of a gambling problem and is constantly running from his debt collectors, often by signing someone else’s name. In the song “Bianca,” Nash plays the role of the manipulative yet playful boyfriend with such charm that it is utterly believable that he could win forgiveness for consistently getting into serious financial trouble. Also noteworthy were the two gangsters, played masterfully by Troy Larsen and Kevin Pope. These two have the fun roles of being the tough guys who have come to collect the debt, and get caught up the stage production as well as all of the drama that goes on back stage. The pair sing the popular number “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with such humor and character that I was thrilled each time they came onto the stage for the numerous encores written in the script, a tactic that I have found to be tiring in some productions.
While I enjoyed many aspects of this production, I did find that the ensemble numbers felt slightly disjointed, with some being excellent while others feeling rushed and a little under enthusiastic. For instance, the opening number “Another Opening, Another Show” was full of energy and fun, and the cast was in sync and united. However, the song “We Open In Venice” seemed to fall off pace, and the cast stumbled over some of their choreography. The same thing seemed to happen during “Cantiamo D’Amore.” The opening of the second act, “Too Darn Hot,” on the other hand, displayed the same energy and fun of the first number.
Finally, the performance of Emily Wells, who plays Miss Lilli Vanessi, the main star of the musical, was my favorite performer in the cast. Wells played the character with wit and sarcasm, and it was apparent that she truly enjoyed her character. In particular, Wells’s performance of the song “I Hate Men” was one of the best renditions I’ve seen. Wells certainly was able to show that she should not be crossed. I also felt she played the romance well with Fred Graham, played by Josh Astle. The interactions that director Nancy Jensen created for the two leads were charming and full of fun.
Overall, the Empress has put together a fine production in Kiss Me Kate, and for fans of the classic musical, they will not be disappointed with this version.