The show is set in 1948 Baltimore, where a theater company is performing a musical version of William Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Life soon imitates art when the egomaniacal Fred Graham (Tom Hewitt) hires his hostile ex-wife, Lill Vanessi (Lesli Margherita), to co-star despite their volatile relationship. As if that weren't enough drama, complications pile up, including gambling hoofers, promiscuous damsels, and two gangsters with an unpaid IOU.
What makes the show work so brilliantly is both the peerless script, by Bella and Sam Spewak, that cleverly parallels Shakespeare's classic comedy, and Cole Porter's most complex and sumptuous score, featuring one gem after another.
Margherita is a treasure as the movie star who's slumming it back in the theater, only to discover she's still passionate about her husband. When she discovers he's still a pig, she has to play multiple levels as she conveys both Lili and Shrew's Kate emotions simultaneously. She brings down the house with "I Hate Men" and is hauntingly wistful in "So In Love." Hewitt humorously nails the inherent pomposity in Fred, who is a legend in his own mind. He also finds nuances in "Were Thine That Special Face," giving a special intimacy to the number.
As the man-loving Lois Lane, Meg Gillentine, slyly flirts through "Tom Dick and Harry" and "Always True to You In My Fashion." Sean Martin Hingston's James Cagney-impersonation as Bill Calhoun is grating, but he wins you over with his stylish dance moves. And even though he and Gillentine have little chemistry in their book scenes, they ignite the stage in their dance bits with their smoldering intensity.
The supporting players shine, including Roland Rusinek, Mark Capri, and, especially Christine Horn, who makes you wish her Hattie had more than "Another Openin, Another Show" to sing. Herschel Sparber and Jay Brian Winnick almost steal the show with their interpretation of the gangsters, especially as they deadpan their way through "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" hilariously.
Director Michael Michetti has a few issues corralling the entire cast in the opening number and the finale of the first act, as things become a bit too chaotic, but he masterly keeps the humorous book breezy and the romance essential so that the audience cares who winds up together at the end.
As usual, choreographer Lee Martino leads the cast through exhaustively stunning moves, utilizing all that 1940s swing has to offer. Musical director Michael Paternostro makes the orchestra zing as they play some of Broadway's best standards, and Garry Lennon's costumes are a lark, particularly 3D codpieces that almost reach the audience.
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