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Kiss Me, Kate

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Tony Lawson and Judy McLanein Kiss Me, Kate(Photo: John Vecchiolla)
Tony Lawson and Judy McLane
in Kiss Me, Kate
(Photo: John Vecchiolla)
There's nothing wrong with the Westchester Broadway Theatre's basically fine production of Kiss Me, Kate that wouldn't be cured by stronger direction and some knowledgeable vocal coaching...and, maybe, one major bit of recasting.

In terms of both text and staging, the production is more or less a hybrid of two versions of the show: the beloved 1948 original and the less convincing but nevertheless popular 1999 Broadway revival. The differences between the two are not all that great, and both have their plusses and minuses. KMK 1948 features perfect placement of Cole Porter's marvelous songs and a solid if somewhat overwritten book by Sam and Bella Spewack; the revival trimmed some of the Spewacks' verbosity but featured an unbearably trite opening (theater folks slowly drifting onto the stage, wistfully singing "Another Op'nin, Another Show") and stupidly attempted to interpolate the Porter standard "From This Moment On" as a comedy song for a minor character. As far as I can tell, Westchester Broadway is presenting the original version, trimmed a bit and with a few ideas appropriated from the revival. (Strangely, though "From This Moment On" is listed in the program to be performed by Harrison Howell and Lilli Vanessi -- as it was in the revival -- the number never happens.)

A dinner theater with a large, three-quarter thrust stage, Westchester Broadway is not the ideal space for this classic proscenium musical about a theatrical couple whose romantic troubles begin to be played out on stage during a performance of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. But director Drew Scott Harris and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld have rather brilliantly staged the show's scenes and dances -- with a cast of 20 -- in such a way that the space is filled and excellent sightlines are maintained for all patrons. The production has a small but able orchestra, and Jeff Johnson Doherty's costumes (based on the original designs of Martin Pakledinaz) are lovely. And then there's the bad news....

Sad to say, Tony Lawson gives an excruciatingly self-indulgent, over-the-top performance as Fred Graham/Petruchio. It's not that Lawson's basic comic and dramatic instincts aren't good, it's just that he exaggerates and telegraphs each of his choices to such a degree that he often appears ridiculous on stage. The performance seems to have been modeled on Kelsey Grammer's Frasier, with all of that character's most pomopous and insufferable mannerisms magnified about 200 times. (Lawson's program bio tells us that he played the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance for WBT and, though I didn't see that performance, I feel like I have -- that's how broad and cartoonish he is as Fred/Petruchio.) As to his singing, Lawson may have a fine baritone voice in there somewhere but he exhibits severe vocal problems: He slices and dices musical phrases, and anytime he does sustain a note, he first produces it as an unsupported tone that sounds flat until his vibrato finally kicks in. The pity of it all is that Lawson conceivably has it in him to give an estimable account of this role, but that would require so much work on his acting and singing that it would probably be easier to simply cast someone else.

In contrast to Lawson's overacting, his leading lady -- Judy McLane, as Lilli/Kate -- contributes a slightly subdued performance. At least, that's how she came across on opening night. But this is certainly preferable to egregious overacting, and McLane is such a talented singer-actress that she is enjoyable on stage even when apparently not giving her all. She easily handles the role's Shakespearean dialogue and really delivers the goods in such songs as "So In Love," "Wunderbar," "I Hate Men," and -- most notably -- "I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple."

As Lois Lane/Bianca, Danette Holden dances well and acts well enough, but her singing voice exhibits the same kind of support problems as Lawson's. Opposite her, as Bill/Lucentio, Josh Rhodes does everything right in the dancing, acting, and singing departments, yet the performance somehow fails to pop. In smaller roles, Eric Alderfer is dryly amusing as Ralph, the stage manager; James Van Treuren does all that can be done with the thankless role of Harrison Howell; and Chris Jamison -- made up to look exactly like Edith Head -- is a lot of fun as Hattie, played here as a costume mistress rather than a maid. The fact that this role and that of Fred Graham's valet, Paul, were written to be performed by black actors, is nowadays viewed by some as racially stereotypical and therefore offensive (even though the show is set in the 1940s); Westchester Broadway neatly avoids the issue by casting Hattie as a white woman and cutting Paul entirely. (For the record: The company includes a black actor, Eric Jackson, as Gremio.)

Curt M. Buckler and Michael J. Farinain Kiss Me, Kate(Photo: John Vecchiolla)
Curt M. Buckler and Michael J. Farina
in Kiss Me, Kate
(Photo: John Vecchiolla)
Even an absolutely stellar production of Kiss Me, Kate with superb leads can be stolen by the actors cast in the roles of Gangsters 1 and 2; that's just the way this musical is set up. At WBT, Michael J. Farina and Curt M. Buckler walk away with the show, partly because the shortcomings of the rest of the cast and the production make their own work seem all the more invaluable. Needless to say, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and its encores bring down the house, but Farina and Buckler score many other times throughout the performance.

Drew Scott Harris's direction of this show may be the most inconsistent I've ever seen. On the one hand, as noted above, the blocking is exemplary, and there are many smart bits throughout. For example, "Bianca" -- the one bad song in the show -- is salvaged here through its presentation as a tap duet for Bill and Lois. Even more creatively, Harris has changed "Always True to You (In My Fashion)" from a solo, with Lois singing verse after verse to Bill, into a wonderfully entertaining number that involves four more male members of the company. And there is a truly beautiful moment at the end of "I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple" when Harris admirably ameliorates the song's political incorrectness by having Fred kneel before Lilli, rather than vice-versa. Unfortunately, all of these neat touches are countered by the director's poor pacing of the show and his inability to control the shameless overplaying of Tony Lawson. Still, this Kiss Me, Kate is mightily impressive in many respects and, on the whole, is a far more polished piece of work than one might expect to see at a suburban dinner theater.


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