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Cole Porter's 'Kiss Me, Kate" soars in Barrington Stage's superb revival

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'Kiss Me Kate" at the Barrington Stage Company

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Despite having followed the Barrington Stage Company’s (BSC) outstanding history of producing high quality musical revivals every summer, including last summer’s entertaining production of “On The Town” which is now poised to move on to Broadway, nothing could have quite prepared me for the delights and surprises of the company’s current undertaking, a lively, point-perfect staging of the Cole Porter classic “Kiss Me Kate,” which plays through July 12 at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage.

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The director, Joe Calarco, has in the past demonstrated an affinity for small-scale musicals and intimate plays including “The Memory Show” and “The Burnt Part Boys” at BSC. But rest assured, “Kiss Me Kate” proves that he is more than up to the challenge of directing a large scale musical, particularly one with multiple moving parts, including elaborate production numbers, wildly comedic scenes between a pair of notoriously acerbic lovers, and a complex play-within-a-play that requires flashes of Shakespearean dialogue and an array of Elizabethan costumes. The end result is not only an impressive evening of theater but a thrilling experience of genuine musical comedy joy. I haven’t had this much fun at a musical in ages.

Everything, from the staging to the casting to the musical direction of the voices to the arrangements that make a 13-person orchestra sound like a symphony, works smoothly and impressively from start to finish.The complications and comedy of the Samuel and Bella Spewack libretto are clear and easy-to-follow and the entire production never falters. It’s such a polished production that one is tempted to forget that you are in the Berkshire hills, until you realize that for the Barrington Stage such results have become de rigeur for their summer mainstage musical.

Calarco has been aided significantly by the work of a young choreographer, Lorin Lattaro, who has served as an Associate on some pretty big Broadway shows and come into her own on such productions as “The Queen of the Night,” the theater piece that reopened Broadway’s famous Diamond Horseshoe, and the Aimee Semple McPherson biotuner, “Scandalous.” She’s choreographed a lot at the recently rejuvenated Bucks County Playhouse,http://www.bcptheater.org/ but with “Kiss Me Kate” she emerges as a major choreographer to be reckoned with. Her dances combine humor with innovation, and she’s always ready to defy audience expectations. I had no clue where she was going with the Act II topper, Porter’s festive “Too Darn Hot,” with the scene’s stage door set so close to the lip of the stage, but she leads us slowly and surreptitiously into one of the most rewarding production numbers in years, that manages to showcase the dancing talents of nearly everyone in the cast.

Any good production of “Kiss Me, Kate” needs two strong singer/actors to play the egotistically quarreling pair of ex-spouses, Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham, who are costarring in a pre-Broadway tryout of the musicalized version of “The Taming of the Shrew” as Kate and Petruchio, respectively. When Elizabeth Stanley was announced as Kate/Lilli, I knew that this veteran of “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Merrily We Roll Along” in New York and last summer’s “On The Town” in Pittsfield had the vocal chops to handle the score, but she astounded me with her grasp of her character, capturing every nuance of the arrogance and the frailty of Lilli, while easily handling all the comedic aspects of the role, without stooping to caricature or dishonesty.

In a similar vein, I was a bit surprised learning that Paul Anthony Stewart, an able young actor I have long admired for his work in straight plays, was cast as Fred/Petruchio. I figured that conveying Fred’s haughtiness and superiority would be a manageable stretch but I had only seen him sing—quite capably I might add—in two productions. But again, what a rewarding surprise. Stewart has a strong baritone that can soar out over the audience in such a commanding way that it makes me wonder why he hasn’t been cast in many musicals before, including those on Broadway. Producers and directors are missing out on a major talent. And although the actor tends to look young, even with a hipster length beard and moustache, he is quickly able to convince the audience that he is indeed the visionary and authoritarian impresario that the part demands.

The other parts are equally well cast notably the delightful Mara Davi who plays the flirtatious, vixenish Lois Lane, the Bianca of the musical within the musical, who not only has a great voice, as demonstrated in the first solo we are treated to, “Why Can’t You Behave,” but to use a sexist term from the 1948 period of the play, a fine set of gams that can literally show up anywhere on a partner whenever she’s required to dance. I like that she imbues Lois with a just a touch of the siren, enough to convey that she can mean danger, but more that she is her own woman, take her or leave her.

As a result, Tyler Hanes, as Lois’s off-again, on-again boyfriend and scene partner, Bill Calhoun/Lucentio, has to instill a little more toughness into his character along with a sense of stubbornness that explains his unwillingness to give up his gambling ways in spite of the appeals of Lois’s vulnerable man-eater. There’s a nifty tension in the pair’s dancing that adds an additional level of excitement to Latarro’s numbers.

Other audience pleasers include Michael Dean Morgan and Carlos Lopez as the two theater-loving gangsters who are sent to collect on Bill’s I.O.U.’s but instead mistake Fred for him and end up working to insure that Lilli, upset with Fred’s infatuation with Lois, remains with the show during its out-of-town Baltimore engagement. Their rendition of the classic “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” earns them the full, well-deserved, double encores. Nyla Watson livens things up as the seamstress Hattie who gospel-force voice commands the opening number, “Another Opening, Another Show,” while Matthew Bauman as Fred’s assistant Paul, shows off his winning smile, an authoritative singing voice and a well-honed sense of rhythm leading “Too Darn Hot.” Fred Inkley does a spot-on interpretation of Lilli’s general suitor in the style of Douglas MacArthur and besides getting to sing also gets to say, “I shall return.”

There are oodles of moments to treasure from the production, with probably too many to mention, but we’ll share some particularly invigorating ones. Stanley and Stewart duet buoyantly on “Wunderbar” and later demonstrate a viciously delightful sense of comedy as their off-stage bickering takes to the stage in a climactic scene from “Shrew” in which the pair outdoes the mutual violence of Shakespeare’s original wooing scene. Stanley demonstrates her readiness to step into the shoes of the very best of Broadway leading ladies with her take Kate’s anthem “I Hate Men,” broken broomstick and all, while Stewart captures Petruchio’s overconfidence quite believably in “I Come To Wive It Wealthily in Padua.” Davi and three of her suitors, including the outstanding Hanes, sing and dance merrily to Porter’s slyly sinister “Tom, Dick or Harry.” Director Calarco wisely stages the seduction scene quite cleverly with the members of the “Shrew” tour’s cast sitting on a series of benches that line the left and right walls of the set. This serves to concentrate attention toward the center of the stage, while allowing performers to jump up as necessary to get into the action.

The second act is essentially a cavalcade of one outstanding number after another, with the performers getting the applause and recognition they deserve, from Stewart’s powerful version of “Where Is the Life That Late I Led,” to Davi’s take on “Always True To You in My Fashion.” Stanley shines in a reprise of “From This Moment On,” a now-common but welcome interpolation from Porter’s “Out of this World,” while Hanes leads the ensemble on his pledge of love to Lois, “Bianca.”

Amy Clark has created a full array of colorful costumes for the show-within-a-show’s Elizabethan setting, that yet accommodate some acrobatic dancing. They are particularly elaborate and appropriate for our leads, and also quite funny when adopted by the visiting gangsters. She also must simultaneously create a series of outfits, from overcoats to shoes, for the 1948 time period, which come across quite effortlessly. James Kronzer’s set is indeed up to the task of showing side-by-side dressing rooms, depicting a backstage corridor lined with dressing room doors and creating an on-stage version of a Shakespearean set. While the Elizabethan backdrops may strike one as a bit busy or tacky, just remember that this “Shrew” is a road show on a tryout. And when the most negative comment you can make about a show is that its show-within-a-show show curtain creaks as it is pulled across the stage, then I’d say you are no doubt going out of your way to complain!

I probably should have known better, that BSC would indeed come through a magically towering production of “Kiss Me, Kate,” but it’s also fun to be so pleasantly surprised that one is swept out of the theater with a sense of joy and awe of what can be accomplished by a seasonal theater that takes its musicals seriously.

For information and tickets for “Kiss Me, Kate,” please call the Box Office at 413.236.8888 or visit their website at www.barringtonstage.org.

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