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.


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.


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.

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!

‘S Wonderful Max von Essen

Kevin Fallon conducted a great interview with Max von Essen for The Daily Beast and I think you should read it.

Von Essen stars in the new Broadway show, An American in Paris, by all accounts a lush new show with a Gershwin score full of standards to die for. (Perhaps obviously, it’s based on the 1951 Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron picture, only with a new book by Craig Lucas.) Von Essen’s not new to the table — I still regret not being able to see him in Evita — but he’s one of those solid performers that you can always depend on. You may not instantly remember his name, but hardcore theatre-goers certainly do. Maybe that will change now.

Anyhow, from Fallon’s interview:

Interestingly enough, one of the first facts listed about von Essen on his Wikipedia page is that he is openly gay, something that he laughs about, but clearly doesn’t mind.

“If I don’t get a TV show next year because someone looks up my Wikipedia and it says ‘openly gay,’ then it’s worth the risk because I’ve had so many years being openly gay and proud of myself as a role model.”

“Especially for me on Broadway, of all places, I know people who are gay but living a bit of a lie in my own community,” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘You’re on Broadway! You do musical theater! Of all places to hide yourself? Are you kidding? Enjoy. Be yourself.’”

Bravo, sir, bravo.

You can see von Essen in the hilarious web series Submissions Only. He has delightful comic timing — and he’s easy on the eyes. What’s not to love?


Max von Essen, far left, played Cameron Dante, the boyfriend of Steven Bienskie’s Stephen Ferrell (third from left, in tie) in the delightful comedy about the other side of theatre, Submissions Only. Also pictured are Anne L. Nathan, creators Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead, Colin Hanlon, Wade McCollum and Lindsay Nicole Chambers.|Image: Curtis Brown/Broadway World


How “A Christmas Story” Kept Peter Billingsley Normal

How “A Christmas Story” Kept Peter Billingsley Normal.

A great piece on Billingsley, who, as an adult never went all Dana Plato at it. Also, it’s nice to see him embrace this iconic role. More than embrace it, he’s been a producer on the successful musical that has played on Broadway and across the country over the last several years.

For the record, I’ve seen the musical version twice — in 2012 on Broadway and in 2013 at Madison Square Garden. I love every bit of it.


Peter Billingsley. |Image: Ramona Rosales/BuzzFeed

Catching Up With The Multi-Talented Billy Magnussen

InDepth InterView: Billy Magnussen Talks Reserved For Rondee UK Gigs, INTO THE WOODS Movie, VANYA, 50 SHADES & More.


Billy Magnussen brilliantly played the dim Spike in a Tony-nominated turn on Broadway earlier this year. He played Signourney Weaver’s love interest. Some gals have all the luck! | Image:

Good in-depth interview by Pat Cerasaro on Broadway World with Billy Magnussen. He’s one of my favorite interview subjects of late because he comes across as completely genuine — and more than a little bit quirky.

He’s shooting the new Into The Woods movie right now and he’s hot off his Tony-nominated turn in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s exceptional play and one of the funniest afternoons I’ve ever spent at the theatre.

Magnussen is certainly easy on the eyes — just as he was back in the day when he played Casey Hughes on As The World Turns where I first ran across him — but he’s more than just another pretty face. His band is damn good, too. Here’s a link to the iTunes pages for Reserved For Rondee.

The Next Tenant at 221B Baker Street: Sir Ian McKellen


Sir Ian McKellen at the U.K. premiere of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” |Image via

My old pal, Sir Ian McKellen, also known as Sir Patrick Stewart’s BFF/X Men nemesis/fellow  waiter for Godot — also Gandalf — is slated to be the next actor to carry the mantle of Sherlock Holmes at the movies. Sorry, the cinema.

The 74-year-old McKellen will play a retired Sherlock who decides to have a crack at one last case. Sir Ian, one of the top actors in the world, is also a cracking nice chap. At least that’s my experience.

No word if there’ll be any Cumberbatch cameos!

‘Vanya and Sonia’ to Get a New Masha in B’way Extension

‘Vanya and Sonia’ Will Get a New Masha When Broadway Run Extends –


Julie White, Durang’s new Masha during the extension of his Tony Award-winning Best Play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. |Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images/

Christopher Durang’s latest is ‘fantabulous,’ as a friend of mine used to say. Shalita Grant deserved the supporting actress Tony, I thought. It was an unexpectedly brilliant few hours in the theatre and I’m so glad I saw it. If you’re in the Big Apple and can snag a ticket, do go. It’s marvelous.

Durang’s Best Chekovian ‘Spike’


Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce, Genevieve Angelson (on rug), Sigourney Weaver and Billy Magnussen star on Broadway in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” The play is directed by Nicholas Martin. Photographer: Carol Rosegg/O&M Co. via Bloomberg

Lucky me. I was in New York last week and had a chance to see Christopher Durang’s brilliant Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Golden Theatre.

When we arrived and settled into our seats, the usher turned to us and said, “You’re going to laugh.”

“Good,” I said, “I could use a laugh.”

“Oh, you’re gonna laugh,” she said, “whether you need it or not!”

And I did.

Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce, the divine Shalita Grant and the hilarious Billy Magnussen all received Tony Award nominations for their performances today. They were all richly deserved — hell, I thought someone should have delivered a Tony to Ms. Grant after the performance I saw, she was so good — but I am puzzled by the Tonys snub (and it’s completely a snub) of Sigourney Weaver who, as Masha, delivers what may be my all time favorite line in the history of theatre in this play.

I just posted a bit about Jake Silbermann who is in a Tony nominated show on Broadway right now as well. Billy Magnussen — Spike — was one of Silbermann’s co-stars on As The World Turns. Let no one tell you great actors don’t come from soaps.

If you have a chance, see VSMS!

By the way: Here’s Billy Magnussen’s reaction courtesy of Theatre Mania. Priceless.

Billy Magnussen, Best Featured Actor in a Play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike:

“Ahhhh, my dog is eating this thing. I have two dogs. I have a French bulldog named Kiki Something Awesome Ninja Meatball. The other one is a long-haired miniature dachshund named Tank. I was in bed when I found out I was nominated for a Tony. I don’t have a publicist. I found out when my mom called this morning. I was sleeping. You know when your phone rings and you just keep yelling at your phone because you just want to sleep? That’s what I was doing. I didn’t know they were calling about that. After the fifth time, I was like, ‘fiiiiine…she has something to talk to me about.’ Crazy, right? I’m going to go to the gym right now. I have to run every day, because I gain weight fast.”