Eat your heart out Broadway!
That exclamation might just be the best way to sing the praises of Marriott Theatre’s knockout production of “Kiss Me, Kate.”
The infrequently revived 1948 musical gem boasts a brilliant score by Cole Porter of nearly 20 knockout songs, almost all of which are classics. It’s a wonderfully clever play-within-a-play book by Sam and Bella Spewack that owes a deep debt of gratitude to that guy by the name of William Shakespeare. Yes, that playwright whose late 16th century comedy, “The Taming of the Shrew,” with its rip-roaring depiction of the war between the sexes, remains uncannily timely.
But first, a note about an equally uncanny element that comes in the form of this musical’s opening number, “Another Op’nin, Another Show.” The song captures the feverish excitement of a cast and crew revving up to open a pre-Broadway tryout in Baltimore, and it could not be more custom-made for this moment as theaters reopen, and actors can finally return to work.
As it happens, the show that is about to make its out-of-town debut in this story is a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew,” whose cast is engaged in as many real-life sexual fireworks as the characters in the musical they are about to open.
Playing the principal roles are Susan Moniz as Lilli Vanessi, a Hollywood star who is returning to the stage as Katherine (the “Shrew”), and who in “real life” is the ex-wife of Fred Graham (Larry Adams), the egotistical producer/director of the musical who also is an actor. Fred is starring opposite Lilli in the musical, and plays the role of Petruchio, the man determined to “wive it wealthily in Padua,” even if Katherine, the woman he is confronted with, is ferociously opposed to marriage. Meanwhile, by order of her father, Katherine’s younger sister, Bianca, will not be permitted to tie the knot until her shrewish sibling submits to Petruchio.
Playing Bianca is a sexy little nightclub singer-turned-actress and skilled man-magnet named Lois Lane (Alexandra Palkovic). Palkovic nails the character with her playfully provocative moves alone. Lois is dating hoofer (and compulsive gambler) Bill Calhoun (deft work by Daniel May). But Lois is being pursued by Graham, even if Graham and Lilli still have a strong love-hate attraction to one another.
There is much more going on in this musical’s backstage life, too. But Johanna McKenzie Miller — an experienced actress making a dynamite debut as director of this grand-scale musical —remains true to Shakespeare’s play, which often is chastised for being offensive to women, while at the same time seeing to it that its female characters are so feisty, driven and self-possessed that you get the sense they can give as well as they get.
But enough of sexual politics. Miller has cast the show with such an astonishing group of performers that the spotlight is more often simply on their talent.
Moniz, a petite figure with a remarkable coloratura soprano and acting chops to match, is absolutely bedazzling as Lilli/Kate. Just listen to her rendition of “I Hate Men” and it seals the deal. She is terrific. And Adams, with his glorious baritone voice in top form, is sensational as the self-important Fred. He captures both the nerves of a producer caught up in a scam and trying not to go broke, as well as the hunger of a middle-aged man still on the hunt, and in this case taken by Lois. Palkovic, who knows just how to send signals via her body language, easily grabbing Fred’s attention. Then she nails the song “Always True to You in My Fashion,” explaining her ways to her boyfriend, Bill, the dancer in the company who expresses himself best by dancing up a storm.
The work of choreographer Alex Sanchez, whose recent credits also include the musical staging for “Paradise Square,” is sublime at every turn, as is the show’s exceptional ensemble of dancers.
Pin a giant star on the dressing room door of Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, who plays Paul, Graham’s dresser. He not only sets the stage in the show’s opening number along with Lilli’s dresser, Hattie (the golden voiced Allison Blackwell), but later brings the house down with his knockout performance of “Too Darn Hot.” The trio of stagehands — dancers Kevin Nietzel, Adam Rogers and Trevor Vanderzee — also bring a wow factor to their dance sequences.
As for the comic engines heating up the show, there are the pair of gangsters with show biz leanings - ideally played by Lillian Castillo and Shea Coffman. Their big number is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Iris Lieberman gives a marvelous cameo performance as the show’s stage manager. And Terry Hamilton gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of Harrison Howell, the Army General who plans to marry Lilli.
Theresa Ham’s costuming ideally captures the personality of every character in the show, whether in their 1940s street style or theatrical garb. Scott Davis’s set, beautifully lit by Jesse Klug, leaves plenty of room for the dancers. And, as always, the orchestra, led by Patti Garwood, the Marriott’s veteran conductor/keyboardist, is perfection.
And what about Cole Porter, that Indiana-born sophisticate with a wicked wit and a genius for wordplay and irresistible melodies? Let’s just say some might consider him the American musical theater’s counterpart of Shakespeare. Just listen to such songs as “Why Can’t You Behave?,” “So in Love,” “Where Is the Life That Late I Led,” and you might even begin to hear the bard’s iambic pentameter rhythms.
“Kiss Me Kate” runs through Jan. 16, 2022.
For tickets visit MarriottTheatre.com or phone (847) 634-0200.
Marriott’s popular Artists Lounge Live series will feature shows by two Chicago favorites - Angela Ingersoll and Heidi Kettenring - in solo holiday concerts.
Ingersoll’s “The 12 Dames of Christmas” (Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m and Dec. 7 at 1 p.m.) will feature the songs of a dozen divas, from Judy Garland to Julie Andrews, Janis Joplin and more.
Heidi Kettenring’s show, “Merry Christmas Darling” (Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 14 at 1 p.m.), will pay homage to Karen Carpenter.
The Four C Notes, a tribute group to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons will perform on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31 at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.).
Nat Zegree, of the Marriott production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” will reprise his concert, “From Mozart to Pop Chart,” including music’s greatest moments from the days of Mozart to Jerry Lee Lewis on Jan. 21 at 8 pm. and Jan. 22 at 1 p.m.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic