Sunday, September 13, 2009

A kissable Kiss Me, Kate

Mary Callanan, R. Patrick Ryan and the chorus in Kiss Me, Kate.

Lyric Stage director Spiro Veloudos has a penchant for squeezing full-size musicals into his intimately-scaled space, and sometimes he gets them to fit (1776, Urinetown) and sometimes he doesn't (Follies). But you can't really blame a man when his reach extends his grasp, and at any rate, with his latest, Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, Veloudos generally comes up aces - because this time around, he and his designers have found clever ways to shoehorn Porter's Shakespearean spectacle into the lower-case wooden "o" that is the Lyric.

But there's more good news about Kate - Veloudos has wisely adopted most of the renovations of the recent Broadway revival, and at least musically, this may be the strongest Lyric show yet. The band sounds terrific under Jonathan Goldberg's direction, and the singing, which is unamplified (so we feel more of the actual vocal presence of the singer), is by and large superb. And that's good news indeed when the show includes such standards as "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Too Darn Hot," "Always True to You (In My Fashion)," and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." The show's dance moves were perhaps one step behind its musical standard - I didn't feel Ilyse Robbins, the Lyric's talented house choreographer, was quite at the top of her form; but she may have been constricted by the set - when things opened up a bit for "Too Darn Hot," she came through and then some.

So musically and vocally the show is a hit - but I have to say that dramatically, it isn't the hoot it should be. Or at least it hadn't quite gelled by press night; it still may over the course of the run, because the opening had that slightly strained, "now-I-do-this-and-now-I-do-that" feeling that big, detailed shows often have in preview. There does seem to be a fundamental problem in chemistry, however, right at the heart of the production - as the warring Kate and Petruchio figures, Amelia Broome (left, with Timothy John Smith) and Peter Davenport both come across as smart, subtle actors rather than the larger-than-life figures the show requires. Indeed, part of the problem may be that these two are simply too naturally subtle for their roles - but on the other hand, I have to add that they seem slightly mis-directed. Broome gives us a highly-strung, serious "actress" rather than a demanding diva, and Davenport plays vanity rather than ego; and neither seems really all that interested in the other sexually. And in a show whose biggest number is "Too Darn Hot," that's a problem.

Still, each is easily talented enough to be appealing when they're going solo - it's their clashes that don't quite connect. Luckily, there's stronger (read: warmer and broader) work around the edges of the production, including great turns from the reliable Mary Callanan and Timothy John Smith, two performers with naturally big stage personalities (and great voices) who know precisely how thick to slice the ham. Meanwhile the equally-reliable Neil A. Casey and J. T. Turner neatly underplayed their roles as the two gangsters who crash this star-crossed production of Taming of the Shrew (and even wind up onstage in doublet and hose); still, I have to say that their classic "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (at right) could use a little more polish, and a few more moves. Other performances were more mixed; in particular, R. Patrick Ryan and Michele DeLuca couldn't make much sense of their Hortensio/Bianca romantic subplot (but then who could, it's the weakest part of a book which, despite claims to the contrary, often serves as just a frame for Porter's revue-style songs). DeLuca showed potential, however, and could truly soar once she learns to sell a song as well as she sings it.

Still, I found that whenever it seemed a performance lagged, there was some deft bit of stage business, or a particularly snazzy costume, to distract me. (Set designer Janie E. Howland, and particularly costume designer Rafael Jean, are definitely in the running for award nominations for their brilliant evocation of Shakespeare-by-way-of-the-40's.) So I think in the end, fans of both this terrific composer and this terrific musical would be satisfied by Spiro Veloudos's latest folly, which is always true to Cole Porter in its fashion.

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