The 1948 musical "Kiss Me, Kate" is a great way to get to know Shakespeare, as well as the music of Cole Porter, yet, surprisingly, the show is not often a choice of community theater groups.
Steve Decker, the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha's Lunt-Fontanne Ensemble's director, chose wisely with this production, which showcases some fine local talent and several UW-Waukesha students. The show was backed by a 17-piece orchestra to do justice to Porter tunes like "So in Love" and "Wunderbar."
The show puts the spotlight on Kassandra Novell as the stage diva Lilli Vanessi. We've seen Novell in smaller roles and have been most impressed with her mastery of the roles and music. This role really stretches her vocals and, like a butterfly out of the cocoon, she really soars with the music. She has many opportunities to showcase her operatic voice.
"Kiss Me, Kate" is the story of a theater troupe putting on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" and Novell's character, Lilli, is playing Katherine. Opposite her playing Petruchio is Fred Graham (Adam Qutaishat), her ex-husband.
This night they are celebrating the one-year anniversary of their divorce, but Lilli still has feelings for him, even though she is engaged to a general. But when Lilli realizes that a bouquet of flowers that she received, thinking they were from Fred, were meant for another actress in the show, she is furious and she vents her anger onstage during the show, while keeping in her shrewish character.
Lilli is so upset she threatens to quit the show after the first act, but is threatened to stay by two thugs with guns who have a financial interest in the play. Lilli finally realizes her life with the general wouldn't be half as exciting as her career in theater.
The show's opening built up nicely, with Jessica Hoof as Hattie leading the company in the rousing "Another Op'nin', Another Show." But the opening scenes, overall, seemed a little sluggish at this Saturday night performance.
Life seemed to return just in time for Fred and Lilli's captivating waltz in "Wunderbar," followed by the lovely vocals of Novell in "So in Love." In the song "Kiss Me, Kate," Novell teases with her definitive reply of "never" to the company's inquiries. Qutaishat also brings considerable vocal skills to the role. In "Where is the Life That Late I Led" he holds the final note with strength and conviction.
The secondary romance in the story involves Lois Lane (Rebecca Osmon) and Bill Calhoun (Chris MacGregor) who bring their backstage bumpy love affair onstage as well in their roles of Bianca and Lucentio.
Ryan Cappleman had a huge challenge with this heavily choreographed show and had some fine dancers to execute his creative moves. "We Open in Venice" shows Cappleman's flare for comedy while the men have many highlights provided by the likes of Timothy Barnes, Timothy Ecklor and Chris MacGregor. The men perform some impressive gymnastics in the charming "Tom, Dick or Harry" with Osmon, and other numbers.
Ecklor is central in one of the show's brightest moments, "Too Darn Hot," which gets Act II off to a sizzling start with a very cool number. The Saturday audience loved the piece, in which the ensemble seemed to feed off Ecklor's energy.
Marty Graffenius and David Robins, as the two thugs who end up on stage in "Taming of the Shrew," add large doses of humor with their tough-guy accents and offbeat comments. The two nailed the fun piece "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," as their characters find themselves in the spotlight of the Shakespeare play.
The young people in the show do a fine job with the ensemble dance pieces. Karl Magsig, who has been a welcome addition in several area productions, is so natural on stage and engages the audience with his smile and graceful movements.
Decker, who also did the set design, created some versatile set pieces that move easily to form backstage space to the stage itself. Lighting is not normally an issue, but there seemed to be a number of ensemble performers in shadows, at least from our vantage.
But you have to be impressed with what Decker brought to the stage, introducing audiences to this outstanding Porter classic with its timeless melodies and clever lyrics, plus a healthy dose of Shakespeare that goes down like honey.
It should also be pointed out that, while other area community theater groups charge $20 or more for musicals, UW-Waukesha charges only $12 ($10 for students and seniors) — quite a bargain for theater-goers!
IF YOU GO
Who: University of Wisconsin-Waukesha Lunt-Fontanne Theatre Ensemble
What: "Kiss Me, Kate"
When: 7:30 p.m. July 25 and 26, and 2 p.m. July 27
Where: UW-Waukesha's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 1500 N. University Drive
Tickets: $12 adults, $10 students and seniors; (262) 521-5212
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