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Friday, 18 June 2010

Kiss Me, Kate: Bold and Bright

Kiss Me, Kate
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Sam and Bella Spewack
Directed by John Doyle
Featuring Juan Chioran, Mike Jackson, Chilina Kennedy, Monique Lund, Steve Ross, Cliff Saunders
(all photos by David Hou)

The Story: It is the 1940’s in Baltimore, and ex-spouses Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi are starring in a new adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Lilli still has feelings for her ex, but he is favouring his new ingénue Lois Lane, who is actually in love with her cabaret co-star, Bill Calhoun. Thanks to Bill’s gambling, some toughs have come to collect his debt – which he signed in Fred’s name. Lilli learns of Fred’s fling and in a fury tries to leave the show, but Fred persuades the debt collectors force her hand, because maybe, just maybe, he still has feelings for her, too.

The play-within-a-musical storyline might be a bit confusing but let us state right now, this is not Shakespeare’s play, it is Cole Porter’s musical. The characters in the musical are playing actors who perform Shakespeare rather badly. They are supposed to be bad Shakespearean actors whose offstage lives begin to leak onstage; that is a small part of what makes this musical so funny. (It is not nearly so funny to explain to one’s audience neighbours who thought they’d be seeing The Taming of the Shrew - sans music - so let’s move on.)

This is a musical the audience will either love or hate. They will not hate it because of the performances, which are wonderful; they will hate it because of the bold choice of costumes for the Shakespeare part. Think of the Jetson’s in Shakespearean dress – asymmetrical, cartoon-like sketches of the Renaissance silhouette, with big, stiff hoops the women in particular must navigate, but without the fussiness of ruffles and brocades. Designer David Farley unpacked the big box of Crayola’s for them – fuchsia, chartreuse, scarlet, goldenrod – the colours are bold and they brighten the space and actors wearing them.

The set is same. Starting out ‘backstage’ with a ghost-light, rafters, sandbags and scaffolding, the ‘onstage’ set is as bright as the ‘backstage’ is dull. Saturated colours, nothing exactly square, and often the actor’s costumes double as the set pieces – it illustrates the “make-do” innovation with which many theatre companies without large resources must contend. The backdrop for the Shrew set is a set of canvas curtains painted with cubist-inspired Italianate scenes. With the avant-garde set, costumes and over-acting (from the characters, not the real actors), the show within a show would have utterly failed in 1940’s Baltimore, but thankfully audiences today are more accepting (the critic hopes).

The musical begins with a single actor onstage (Jordan Bell), a boy who remains onstage throughout the entire story – a sort of ‘everyman’ audience who is seduced not just by the onstage glory, but the backstage dramas of the actors. He is not the only one seduced either. The two toughs, played by Steve Ross and Cliff Saunders in perfect unison, also begin to feel the pull of the limelight, and slowly transform into actors within the play. They not only look forlorn when they have to give up their costumes, but perform one of the most delightful, hummable numbers of the play – Brush Up Your Shakespeare (in perfect Brooklyn accents) – to extend their time on stage (although the launch of this number seems to come out of nowhere).

Part of the backstage drama is due to the shenanigans of Lois Lane, played very perkily by Chilina Kennedy (right, with Jaz Sealy, Kyle Golemba and Mike Jackson). As Lois leads on both of her leading men, she nevertheless shows great fondness for Bill in numbers like Why Can’t You Behave? and Bianca, but can’t help showing off for her backstage cohorts in Always True to You in My Fashion and Tom, Dick or Harry. Ms. Kennedy’s sparkles as Lois repeatedly tries to be the centre of attention and her pratfalls make for great physical comedy. Her boyfriend Bill (Mike Jackson) is at first cavalier, throwing ‘how you doin?’ winks at the audience, then turns into a big softie by the end of the show.

Juan Chioran’s Fred Graham is a man who is pompous (which is expected for the character) and also a bit fragile (which is not), like a man who is trying too hard to hold onto youth and past glories. He is as mad a Petruchio that ever trod the boards, and as desperate a Fred to keep Lilli in character and in check. Mr. Chioran (left) is the backbone of this production.

Where Mr. Chioran is the backbone, Monique Lund (right) is the heart, playing Lilli/Kate. She is utterly convincing as both the sophisticated Lilli Vanessi and as the furious Kate. Her vocal range is amazing, but so is the expression she gives to each individual number: So in Love is sung so hauntingly it produces goose-bumps, so humanly it produces tears (Mr. Chioran’s reprisal is just as soft and wistful). Yet I Hate Men is shrill and funny, and in Kiss Me, Kate her parody of operatic pyrotechnics is jaw-dropping. Ms. Lund (right) owns the most hilarious moment yet witnessed this season – a well-timed, clever, exit-stage-left, barely possible in her voluminous hooped-costume – it produces fits of giggles even after leaving the theatre.

Love or hate the production, the performances are formidable, the songs are hummable and the costumes are, at the very least, memorable. All in all, Kiss Me, Kate is enjoyable, and it continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 30th.

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