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Paulanne Simmons

"Kiss Me Kate" Is Well Worth Embracing

Kiss Me, Kate, Paper Mill Playhouse, Photo by Gerry Goodstein, Left to Right, Liz Kimball, Elliott Bradley, Gary Lynch (Pops), Stephen Carrasco (Hortensio), Wes Hart (Gremio), Katie Hagen, Kyle Vaughn and Desirée Davar

"Kiss Me Kate"
Directed by James Brennan
Paper Mill Playhouse
Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Opened April 16, 2008
Wed. 7:30 p.m., Thurs. 2 & 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m.
$25 - $92
Closes May 18, 2008
Reviewed Aprile 26, 2008

When Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate" first opened at the New Century Theatre in 1938, it was soon overshadowed by the latest work of the two current darlings of Broadway, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," which opened at the Majestic Theatre a few months later.

Ironically, both shows are now again in revival, "South Pacific" at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, and "Kiss Me Kate" at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. The Lincoln Center production may again get most of the attention. But smart theatergoers won't miss the excellent revival Paper Mill Playhouse has staged in its lovely theater located next to a bubbling brook and across the street from a very reasonably priced parking lot.

"Kiss Me Kate" is the ultimate backstage musical in that it integrates the show-within-the show better than anybody had done before or has done since. Based on Shakespeare's comedy, "The Taming of the Shrew," the musical shows how the hero, Fred Graham (Mike McGowan) manages to tame his woman, his former wife, Lilli Vanessi (Michele Ragusa), both onstage when she plays Kate, the shrew, and offstage as the temperamental diva.

There's also the obligatory secondary couple, Lois Lane (Amanda Watkins) and Bill Calhoun (Timothy J. Alex), small-time hoofers on Broadway for the first time. Bill refuses to behave ("Why Can't You Behave?") and Lois has a hard time being faithful ("Always True to You in My Fashion").

Lois and Bill also cause a major complication in the play when two gangsters arrive at the theater to collect on Bill's gambling debts.

James Brennan directs this production with both enthusiasm and finesse. The choreography, by Patti Colombo, and the extravagant and very colorful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are superb.

"Kiss Me Kate" produced one hit song after another in an era when this was expected of successful musicals. Lilli's "So in Love," the ensemble's "Too Darn Hot" and the duet "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" performed by the two gangsters (Gordon Joseph Weiss and William Ryall) all have iconic status and are treated with due respect in this revival.

Whether you call it chemistry or electricity, or just fine acting and singing, the scenes between McGowan and Ragusa are scintillating. Their intensity is nicely contrasted by the more calculating but equally melodious Alex and Watkins.

Whichever one of the many terrific numbers in this show is your favorite, when the curtain comes down you'll most probably agree that "Kiss Me Kate" is "Wunderbar."


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