Take a jolly Shakespeare comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” toss in a troupe of actors and update the Bard’s work to a musical set in Baltimore in the late 1940’s and you have all the delicious ingredients for an afternoon or evening of joy. “Kiss Me Kate,” with book by Bella and Samuel Spewack and glorious songs by Cole Porter is a colorful calliope of comedy revolving at the Hartford Stage until Sunday, June 14.
As a story within a story, we meet the feuding and divorced acting couple Fred Graham and his co-star ex-wife Lilli Vanessi. Mike McGowan’s Fred is wonderfully disdainful of his temperamental Lilli, played with fantastic finesse by Anastasia Barzee. The pair spar and parry, though one might ponder that they protest their antagonism a shade too much.
Both have seemed to have moved on romantically, he courting the young and pretty and flirtatious cast member Lois, an upwardly ambitious Megan Sikora, and she the prestigious military man General Howell, a macho and motivated Tony Lawson. When Lilli receives a bouquet of roses on the anniversary of their divorce, she thinks Fred sent them out of an undying love. When she realizes they were really meant for Lois, in the middle of their onstage show, she takes a clearly physical revenge.
In the Bard’s play, Lilli’s Katherine is a tempestuous shrew whom no suitors will court. That leaves her father Baptista (Jeff Steitzer) with a dilemma. His younger daughter Bianca (Megan Sikora) has a trio of suitors, Lucentio (Tyler Hanes), Horstensio (Giovanni Bonaventura) and Gremio (Barrett Martin) who all want to marry her. She sings a delicious “Tom, Dick or Harry” that shows off her excellent marital possibilities. Bianca can’t wed until Katherine does. When Petruchio (Mike McGowan) arrives on the scene, loudly proclaiming “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” the plot to marry him off to the “cursed Kate” is hatched.
Between the feuding on stage and back stage, the action is delightfully and comically intense. Lois plays a master juggler, also fielding the attentions of her gambling addicted beau Bill (Tyler Hanes) who has just lost 10,000 big ones and signed an unsuspecting Fred Graham’s name to the I.O.U. When two gangsters arrive to collect (Joe Blum and Brendan Averett), they soon find themselves in costume and do a cute turn of step in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
Darko Tresnjak pulls out all the great gimmicks to make this show a pure pleasure, with Peggy Hickey’s energetic choreography, a terrific cast of actors, a versatile revolving set designed by Alexander Dodge and splendid costuming by Fabio Toblini.
For tickets ($25 and up), call the Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford at 860-527-5151 or online at www.hartfordstage.org. Performances are Wednesday,Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
With kudos to Shakespeare, the Spewacks and Cole Porter, you can’t help being bowled over by this spectacular “wunderbar” performance. It’s too darn hot not to sizzle.