By Mary Boyle
The music of Cole Porter is part of the fabric of American culture. From Broadway musicals to film, even if you don't recognize his name, I can almost guarantee you've heard his music: "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Anything Goes," "It's De-Lovely," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Let's Do It," and "Don't Fence Me In," to name a few. His most popular musical took Broadway by storm in 1948 and won the very first Tony Award for Best Musical. Now, Milwaukee audiences have their chance to see Porter's gem, Kiss Me, Kate, with Skylight Music Theatre through June 16th.
Skylight's season finale, and the final show for longtime Artistic Director Ray Jivoff, Kiss Me, Kate was based on the infamous bickering of the famous husband and wife actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne during their 1935 production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Fun fact: Lunt was a Wisconsin native, and the couple owned Ten Chimneys, which is now a popular tourist attraction and museum in Genesee Depot.
Inspired by Shakespeare's frequent use of plays within plays, Kiss Me, Kate is a musical within a musical. Set in the 1930's, actors Fred Graham (Andrew Varela) and Lilli Vanessi (Rána Roman) are a divorced couple who find themselves working together again in a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew. Sparks still fly between them, but they turn to fury when Lilli finds out the flowers she received from Fred on opening night were really meant for their beautiful co-star, Lois Lane (Kaylee Annable). Meanwhile, Lois's gambling-addicted boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Joe Capstick), is in trouble with the Mob and, to save himself, tells them his name is Fred Graham so, besides having to deal with his furious ex-wife who announced she was leaving mid-show, Fred also has a couple of gangsters show up in his dressing room threatening him. To save the show, Fred tells the gangsters that he can only pay back the money if the show goes on, but the show can't go on without Ms. Vanessi who, much like the Shrew, must be forced to cooperate.
With exceptional Music Direction and Choreography by Kurt Cowling and Amy Brinkman, respectively, Kiss Me, Kate, has the bold and brassy jazz vibe of the 1930's, along with the rampant sexism that came with it; but, as long as you can chalk that up to the time period, this musical is still witty and lots of fun. As Jivoff says, "Here's hoping we can learn from the past and appreciate that things have changed a lot since Shakespeare and Porter's time!"
Roman and Varela, both Skylight regulars, have incredible chemistry together and deliver brilliant performances among a very talented cast, including Milwaukee's Jonathan Gillard Daly, who is well-cast as Howell and Baptista. One of the highlights of the show, however, are the antics of the two gangsters, played by Doug Jarecki and Kelly Doherty (who recently played Miss Trunchbull in Matilda with First Stage); their performance of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" is absolutely fabulous. Besides being a musical with great historical significance, Skylight's production of Kiss Me, Kate is a perfect end to an excellent season and a smashing farewell to Ray Jivoff, whose leadership at Skylight has been an asset to Milwaukee theatre. This show is not to be missed.
Kiss Me, Kate runs through June 16th at the Broadway Theatre Center's beautiful Cabot Theatre, located at 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office, online at www.SkylightMusicTheatre.org, or by calling (414) 291-7811.
About Skylight Music Theatre
Skylight Music Theatre's mission since 1959: To bring the full spectrum of music theatre works to a wide and diverse audience, in celebration of the musical and theatrical arts and their reflection of the human condition. Skylight presents productions "Skylight Style" –bringing fresh approaches or interesting twists to music theatre works, creating meaningful connections, not only between the characters on stage, but with the audience, as well.