Brushed Up and Kissable — Hartford’s Kate is Wunderbar

I always say: you can’t go wrong with Cole Porter. I mean, you can, if you’re stupid, but it’s pretty damn hard. Hartford Stage takes Kiss Me, Kate, arguably Porter’s best musical, and gives it a full-throated production that is devilishly clever and full of all the wit and rhythm that assures us that the Pride of Peru, Indiana remains the best there ever was.

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Mike McGowan, center in fantastic hat, leads a bravura ensemble in Hartford Stage’s production of Cole Porter’s masterful Kiss Me, Kate. |Image: broadwayworld/supplied.

Kiss Me, Kate is allegedly based on the backstage and onstage antics of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne — “the Fabulous Lunts” — when they played The Taming of the Shrew in the 1930s. The apocrypha goes that Saint Subber worked on the Lunts’ Shrew and took the idea of a feuding theatrical couple to Samuel and Bella Spewack, who wrote the book. Subber, who produced Kate on Broadway and made his name producing Neil Simon plays, swore that the story was true, but the Spewacks disputed it.

Either way, it matters not. Kiss Me, Kate is as inventive and as captivating today as it was on opening night in 1948. Tony Award-winnng director Darko Tresnjak knows how to keep a show moving and also how to mine the sly Porter lyrics for every comic nugget. Tresnjak’s set is cleanly and inventively designed by Alexander Dodge and seamlessly transitions between onstage and backstage worlds just as it should.

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Megan Sikora as Lois and Tyler Hanes as Bill stand out in a tremendous cast. Sikora’s comic timing is a perfect counterpoint to Hanes’ smooth sensational dancing. |Image: Cloe Poisson

One of the things about Kate is that it’s a mistake to put all of your emphasis on the two leads. As Fred/Petruchio, Mike McGowan gives a terrific, open performance — so much better, in my opinion, than the overly-operatic take of Brian Stokes Mitchell in the last Broadway revival — and Anastasia Barzee’s Lilli/Kate is his match, but the show would sag quickly if the only substance in the play was the leads bickering, making up, and then falling out again and generally trying to play facsimiles of the Lunts.

In many ways, Kate should — and this Kate does — belong to the second leads. Tyler Hanes as Bill/Lucentio and Megan Sikora as Lois/Bianca waste no time in simply waltzing away with the show. Yes, McGowan gets those fun alliterative Porter tongue twisters (I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua and Where is the Life That Late I Led?) and Barzee gets to showcase her pipes with So In Love and I Am Ashamed That Women are So Simple, but straight out of the gate, Hanes and Sikora get the stage to themselves with Why Can’t You Behave? and they own it from then on; even before Hanes practically stops the show in the hilarious Tom, Dick or Harry — or any other time there’s a dance break; he’s sublime as he executes Peggy Hickey’s terrific choreography.

As we get into the second act, Sikora gives a tremendous rendition of one of my all-time favorite showtunes, Always True to You in My Fashion, which is such a classic cheeky Porter invention, but Tresnjak’s staging of the nimble Hanes appearing and disappearing in every conceivable corner of the stage doubles the enjoyment and Hanes doesn’t get a chance to breathe before launching into the whimsical Bianca (bee-ANK-uh, for those uninitiated).

No one hits anything even approaching a wrong note here. Everything is on the money. A couple of additional shoutouts: James T. Lane is phenomenal leading the ensemble in the Act II opener; Brendan Averett and Joel Blum are sublimely ridiculous as the gangsters who assay that sensational piece of Porter nonsense, Brush Up Your Shakespeare; and someone needs to give Fabio Toblini a handful of awards for his brilliant costumes — especially Petruchio’s hats, which are some of the most hilarious pieces of millinery I’ve seen onstage in a long, long time.

All in all, this Kiss Me, Kate: too darn hot.

It plays through June 14 in Hartford before sitting down for a month in San Diego at the Old Globe (July 1 — Aug. 2), following the same path Tresnjak took with Gentleman’s Guide. Is Broadway next? Here’s hoping. See it.

ODDS & ENDS
Lately I’ve noticed that in the decade that I’ve been out of the business, the American theatre has forgotten every single solitary damn thing I taught it about marketing. I could be lured back, if you smile pretty and promise not to be too naughty. Just saying.

I have to say that I was disappointed in Elizabeth Williamson’s dramaturgical notes in the playbill. In this day and age, I think you should contextualize the Lunts more than just referring to them as “one of the greatest husband and wife acting teams of all time.” Look up “lavender marriage.” Then look up Cole and Linda Porter while you’re at it. Finally, Saint Subber and Monty Clift. That’s your theatrical history brush up for the day. Title it: A Gay Old Time in Padua!

Finally, as we were leaving the show, I turned to my significant other and said, “Jesus, I would give my eye teeth to dance like Tyler Hanes.” Truth. He just put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Maybe in your next life.” Damn. Cold comfort can hurt!

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