Saturday, July 11, 2015

Reagle's Kiss Me, Kate: A Review (Sort of)

Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston’s production of Kiss Me, Kate opened this past Thursday, and I attended last night’s spectacular performance. I don’t often write reviews of local productions, and this is less of a review than a summary of the show with my commentary, but I hope my description will inspire some of my readers to check it out for themselves.

Kiss Me, Kate is a delightful and witty Cole Porter musical about a pair of warring exes starring together in a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The show opens on the final rehearsal of the production (“Another Op’nin’, Another Show”), and we learn that the leading lady, diva Lilli Vanessi (the luminous Sarah Pfisterer, a veteran Broadway performer and regular on the Reagle stage), is not happy to be working with her egotistical ex-husband, director and co-star Fred Graham (played to the pompous hilt by Pfisterer’s real-life husband and fellow Broadway veteran and Reagle regular, Rick Hilsabeck). 

Unlike many real-life couples who lack onstage chemistry, Pfisterer and Hilsabeck positively sizzle as the warring Vanessi and Graham. The tension is palpable, but dissolves into sweet reminiscence during “Wunderbar” as they recall their early days of marriage, quickly crashing back to reality as they retreat to their adjoining dressing rooms. 

We are also introduced to the secondary leads in Shrew, the suave Bill Calhoun (Kevin Patrick Martin) and his flirtatious girlfriend Lois Lane (Lisa Dempsey). Calhoun has just lost 10 grand gambling, and Lane is horrified to hear that he signed the I.O.U. in Graham’s name. A pair of thugs (Aaron Dore and Daniel Forest Sullivan, sporting delicious gravelly voices, stereotypical gangster drawls, and fabulous spectator shoes) soon appear in Graham’s dressing room demanding repayment.

Graham, of course, denies writing the I.O.U. and attempts to throw them out, but they pull their guns on him and tell him they’ll be back. Graham also discovers, to his horror, that the opening night bouquet he meant to send to Lane was accidentally delivered to Vanessi, who is touched that Graham has remembered that it is the first anniversary of their divorce. Graham races into her dressing room to retrieve the note addressed to Lane, but Vanessi finds it first. Without reading it, she tucks it into her bodice as her good luck charm and they both take their places onstage.

The vaudeville-style opening number of Shrew (“We Open in Venice”) includes a pair of tumblers, a donkey pulling a wagon, and signs popping up proclaiming the cities mentioned in the song. 

The curtain then rises on the city of Padua, and a breathtaking vision it is. The set is masterfully done, and the beautiful lighting creates lovely textures and levels.  The gorgeous costumes, featuring plenty of richly draped velvet and brocade, add even more color to the stage.

We are quickly introduced to the characters in Shrew: Vanessi’s Katharine, the shrew herself; Graham’s Petruchio, her would-be suitor; Lane’s Bianca, her younger sister; Bianca’s suitors, including Callhoun’s Gremio; Katharine and Bianca’s father, Baptista (a hilariously longsuffering Rick Sherburne); and the townspeople of Padua. Bianca explains her frustration at being unable to marry until her sister finds a husband (“Tom, Dick, or Harry”). Petruchio offers a solution by announcing he is in search of a wealthy wife, not caring if she is old, ugly, or unpleasant (“I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua”). Bianca’s suitors immediately offer to pay for his suit of Katharine and with Baptista’s doubtful blessing, Petruchio begins to woo her.

Katharine will have none of it, however, and Pfisterer breaks out of her usual lyric soprano to angrily belt out “I Hate Men” with great relish, accompanied by much throwing of objects.  Petruchio, undaunted, continues his suit, but the scene suddenly becomes more complicated as Vanessi reads the note from the bouquet, realizes it was not meant for her, and begins to improvise, repeatedly attempting to slap Graham, who warns her that if she doesn’t stop, he’ll spank her right there on stage – and in a masterful turn of physical comedy the two wrestle and he proceeds to do exactly that as the curtain falls on Act 1.

Act 2 opens with the company cooling off in the alley during intermission, performing a brilliant and energetic rendition of “Too Darn Hot” featuring superb vocals and dancing by Paul (Darren Bunch) and the entire company.

Back in her dressing room, Vanessi angrily calls her fiancé and demands that he come and get her, claiming she has been beaten so badly that she can’t even sit down. Graham tries without success to persuade her not to leave the show, but when the thugs reappear he has a sudden brainstorm and tells them he can only repay his debt if Vanessi completes the run of the show. They begin to threaten her while Graham intercepts the fiancé, Army bigwig Harrison Howell (Rich Allegretto), warning him that Vanessi, like all women, is prone to exaggerate, and will probably tell him she is being forced to perform under duress and ask him to call the FBI.

Naturally, she does just that (even pointing out the thugs, now awkwardly dressed in doublet and hose), and Howell and Graham exchange knowing (and patronizing) looks as Vanessi continues to fume. Howell encourages her to stay, and the second act of Shrew begins with Graham making a smirking announcement that they will be skipping the next scene, as it requires Katharine to ride the donkey, which Vanessi is currently unable to do. The scene begins with a disheveled Kate entering, accompanied by the two thugs, who look even more awkward and are soon directed offstage by Graham. Petruchio criticizes their dinner and sends it away, sending the starving Kate inside and gleefully informing the audience of his plot to tame her by allowing her no food or sleep. He discovers she has locked him out of the house, and sings longingly of the joys of bachelorhood (“Where Is the Life That Late I Led”), a tour de force performance by Hilsabeck, whose rich voice, crisp diction, and humor bring to life Porter’s witty and absurdly quick lyrics without letting the audience miss a single word.
A highlight of the second act is the brilliant transitions of both Hilsabeck and Pfisterer between their show-within-a-show characters and their major characters as Graham and Vanessi slip in and out of character to jibe at each other on stage. It is perfectly clear exactly which lines are from Shrew and which are the scripted ad libs from Kate. The clues are often as subtle as a raised eyebrow or a line delivered through gritted teeth, but the jabs are all the funnier for their subtlety.
We peek backstage again to find Callhoun lamenting Lane’s many dalliances with other men, leading to Lane’s assuring him she is “Always True to You (In My Fashion)” as she lists her many past suitors. Dempsey’s characterization of Lane hits a nice balance of giddiness and giggliness throughout the show without becoming annoying or cartoonish (no easy feat), and her vocals were perfectly solid, but I was a little disappointed in the limited choreography in this number, despite her obvious dance skills.
Back in the dressing room, Howell and Vanessi are soothing their own lovers’ quarrel as Howell announces he has been asked to be Dewey’s running mate, assuring Vanessi that he will soon move up to the Presidency himself and she will enjoy life as the First Lady (“From This Moment On”). Vanessi packs up to leave the theater for good.
We move backstage once again to find a series of packages and flowers being delivered to “Bianca,” as Callhoun sings of his love for Lane despite her coquettishness. As the crowd disperses, the thugs make a phone call to their boss only to find that he has been knocked off, thus nullifying Graham’s I.O.U. They inform Graham that his debt is forgiven, and start to leave the theater as Graham realizes he has lost Vanessi once again. Hilsabeck delivers “So In Love (reprise)” wistfully and tenderly, ending by slipping the cork from their wedding breakfast out of his pocket and gently kissing it, as if to say farewell. Such a lovely heartfelt moment amidst the zaniness of this part of the show.
Meanwhile, the thugs manage to accidentally stumble onstage and the orchestra begins to play, prompting them to break into a terrified and stiff performance of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” They rush offstage at the first opportunity, but are pushed back on, this time wearing straw boaters, and they loosen up a bit, starting to enjoy themselves as they deliver a few slightly more polished verses. Once again, they slip offstage and again reappear, this time with top hats and canes, delivering their final verses in a posh British accent, finally exiting for good with an exuberant little kick. Dore and Sullivan are both capable dancers and I wish there had been a bit more of a build in the choreography, but they made the most of what they were given and the number was appropriately fun and funny.
The final scene of Shrew now begins, with the newly-married Bianca and Gremio entering in their wedding finery, followed by Petruchio but no Katharine. Graham improvises as the cast looks confused, but suddenly, Vanessi enters as a meek and tamed Katharine, proclaiming her love and obedience (“I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple”), and the company comes together to burst out a soaring and exuberant finale (“Kiss Me, Kate (reprise)”).

The absolute highlight of this production, for me, was the music. Led by the multiple IRNE award-winning team of conductor Jeffrey P. Leonard and music director Dan Rodriguez, the 19-piece orchestra raises the roof, ably handling the multiple musical styles called for in the show, shining particularly during the Italian-flavored “Cantiano D’Amore” and the militaristic march “From This Moment On,” as well as the sweeping finale. It was especially impressive that such a large pit could dial it back for more intimate numbers like “So in Love” and the numerous featured trios and small group numbers, all of which demonstrated remarkably tight harmonies and perfectly blended voices. Hilsabeck’s and Pfisterer‘s impressive Broadway vocal chops were well-used in this difficult and rangy score, Pfisterer’s operative soprano voice soaring to effortless stratospheric high notes during “Kiss Me, Kate” and the Finale, yet belting out “I Hate Men” with vitriolic delight. Hilsabeck’s rich baritone shines especially during “Were Thine That Special Face.” Credit must be given to Dan Rodriguez for the fine diction of both the principals and the entire cast, doing much-deserved justice to Porter’s clever lyrics, which are easily missed in a lesser production. 

The bottom line is that if you have any love in your heart for musical theatre, Shakespeare, trained voices, clever humor, or witty wordplay, don’t walk, RUN!!! to catch this production. Remaining performances Saturday, July 11 through Sunday, July 19. See Reagle's website for details and to reserve tickets.

See you at the theater!