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Review: 'Kiss Me, Kate' fine summer fare

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“He that better knows how to tame a shrew, now let him speak,” wrote William Shakespeare in his classic comedy “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Cole Porter thought he might have some ideas on that subject, and KU’s University Theatre brought them to life Friday night, opening its new season with Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate.”

A show within a show, “Kiss Me, Kate” adds layers to the original plot. A troupe of actors is attempting to stage a musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy. Fred Graham (Stephen Dagrosa) wrote, directed and stars in the production. He’s a man who thinks more highly of himself than his talent dictates.

He’s cast his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi (Julia Geisler), opposite him as the shrewish Kate, because she’s gone on to film and he needs her star power to sell tickets. When she discovers he’s secretly sleeping with young ingénue Lois Lane (Rachel Tolbert), who plays Bianca in the production, life imitates art as Lilli becomes every bit as mean as her character, torturing Fred in hilarious fashion onstage during the performance.

The plot is further complicated by Lois’s boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Luke Reddig), who also is in the show as Lucentio, losing $10,000 gambling but signing Fred’s name on the IOU. That brings two gangsters (Thomas Tong and Lily Lancaster) to the show intent on getting their money from the box office. When Lilli threatens to walk out on the show before the end of the first act, the gangsters are pressed into service as additional cast members to force her onstage and to perform.

There are other zany complications, and working through it all are Porter’s catchy, clever songs. The cast embraces the comic silliness of it all and is clearly having fun with it.

Geisler is fantastic as wounded Lilli. Her sarcastic delivery of insults to Fred, her secret hope they can one day get back together, her broken heart when she finds out he lied to her and her using her U.S. Army general boyfriend (Brian Duerksen) to make him jealous are all perfectly executed. Geisler knows when to be subtle and when to go over the top, and she is fun to watch. She also has a gorgeous soprano voice that is always exactly right for the song — playful in “Wunderbar,” both remorseful and hopeful in “So in Love” and hilariously angry in “I Hate Men.”

Dagrosa gets a slow start, but he soon catches up. He’s a little flat in his first two scenes, but, once he becomes Petruchio, he throws himself into the part with gusto. His scenes with Lilli once she discovers his treachery are the funniest in the show.

Some of his songs sound as though they are a little too low for him. He’s got a gorgeous tenor voice that really shines when he gets into his upper register, but he struggles on the low notes.

Likewise, Tolbert seemed to wrestle with her early scenes. “Why Can’t You Behave” is written for an alto, and it sounds as though her mezzo was a little high for it. But, in the second act, she stops the show with the playful and naughty “Always True to You in My Fashion,” enabling her to really show off her voice.

The rest of the cast offers exactly the right level of support. Duerksen is humorous as the brutish General Howell. Reddig hits the right notes as the put-upon boyfriend. Lancaster gives a picture-perfect comic portrayal as the Gangster Moll, and Michael Colman turns in an inspiring rendition of “Too Darn Hot.” The various storylines don’t all resolve satisfactorily, but the music, dancing and acting make “Kiss Me, Kate” fine, lighthearted summer fare.

Director John Staniunas elected to put the audience onstage, so they could be a part of the show as well. Between scenes (and sometimes during them) the revolve rotates, moving the audience to a different part of the stage. In the wrong hands, this gimmick could become tedious, but it’s not overdone and, consequently, works perfectly. Sets don’t have to be changed, and the actors are all in position and ready to go when the audience “arrives,” thereby expediting scene changes. The tactic ends up adding to the fun.

In the end, “Kiss Me, Kate” doesn’t really improve on Shakespeare, and it has some pretty large plot holes. But it’s so much fun and moves breezily from its spectacular opening number to its deliberately ironic conclusion one doesn’t mind. It is fine entertainment on a summer night that is “Too Darn Hot.”

Kiss Me Kate” runs July 18-21 at Stage Too! in Murphy Hall on the KU campus. The Sunday, July 21, performance is sold out. Tickets cost $10-$15 and are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.

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