There was much that was “new” in the air last night, when Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s “SummerFest” presented Cole Porter’s 1949 Broadway hit, Kiss Me, Kate – some new singers (one making his professional debut in a lead role), a new venue (the Falk Auditorium at Winchester Thurston in Shadyside), and what appeared to be a favorably increased audience appreciation of the work this festival has so successfully offered for this and the past four summers. The venue is a decided improvement over the Twentieth Century Club (the home of “SummerFest” in past years) in several ways; better acoustics, possibly a little more stage space, and one that was commented on widely and for obvious reasons – far more comfortable seating. The warm and hearty applause the performance called forth made it clear that the encouragingly large audience was happy about all of this and more.
Kiss Me, Kate is by far the most successful of Porter’s works. When it opened on Broadway on December 30, 1948, at the New Century Theatre, it ran for nineteen months before moving to the Shubert, for a total run of nearly 1,100 performances. In 1949 it won the first ever “Best Musical” Tony Award, and in 1953 MGM turned it into a movie. When the work was revived on Broadway 50 years later, it snared the Tony again, and has been especially popular in London runs and revivals.
Kiss Me, Kate was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack, while Porter supplied the music and song lyrics. It includes many familiar tunes, starting with the curtain raising “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” – “Why Can’t You Behave?” “Wunderbar,” “So in Love,” “Tom, Dick or Harry,” “I Hate Men,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and, of course, “Kiss Me, Kate.” Briefly, the plot revolves around the production of a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the hostilities, on and off-stage, between Fred Graham, the show’s director, producer, and star, and his leading lady – ex-wife Lilli Vanessi. A second romance concerns Lois Lane, the actress playing Bianca, and her gambler boyfriend, Bill, who gets on the bad side of a loan shark and is pursued by a pair of comical “gangsters.” There are many other characters in the large ensemble, and plenty of opportunities for musical comedy.
Douglas Levine conducted a reasonably sized orchestra that for the most part supported the action of the stage on a pleasant wave of sound. The strings were especially good, but the brass could use a little polishing. Overall, the instrumentalists played well, and a few jarring moments of straying from exact pitch will be worked out in the remaining performances. The scenic and lighting effects were impressive, the costumes were picturesque, and the performance was finely choreographed and well directed.
The program tells us that Isaiah Feken, who sang the male lead of Fred Graham (and Petruchio in the parts of the show involving the performance of The Taming of the Shrew), was making his professional debut last night. This came as a surprise, because he gave what seemed to be a rather seasoned interpretation of the role. In the first act, a slight trace of nervousness was detectable, along with an occasional tendency to force his voice to less than musical results. But by the second act, he seemed to be completely in control of his voice and acting, and was distinctly effective in the part. Christina Overton (as Lilli Vanessi/Katherine) sang her music well and displayed a fine comedic flair in her acting. Both young performers were received with loud approval at the close of the production, and they more than earned the generous ovation. In fact, the audience in general displayed out of the ordinary enthusiasm throughout, and, as a very welcome change, the applause was still going loud and long after the final curtain.
Robin Bradley (Lois Lane/Bianca) sang and acted her part well, and her comical facial play and body language reminded the writer somewhat of the long lamented Broadway legend Fanny Brice in the few surviving films she made. It was a treat to see and hear Miles Wilson-Toliver again, this time as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio. This young man, with his warm and powerful voice, impressive appearance, and whole-souled ability to submerge himself into the work at hand make a successful career for him easy to predict. Another standout in the large cast was Shannon Delijani as Paulette, who led the ensemble in “Too Darn Hot.” In this twist on the original, where “Paul” sings the bulk of the song, “Paulette” looked very much like a sultry, 1940s “pin-up” model.
The pairing of Valerie Hosler and Dimitrie Lazich (pictured above) as the two “Gangsters” is alone worth the price of admission. Ms. Hosler has the lingo of a Brooklyn “tough guy” honed to an art form, while Mr. Lazich achieved his accent by extending his lower lip almost to his nose, and let his comical facial play do the rest. Whether they were in dark suits and fedoras or makeshift Shakespearean costumes slapped on so that they could keep their eyes on the actors who owed their “boss” ten grand, the diminutive Hosler and the stately Lazich easily won the comedic honors of the evening, and in their one singing opportunity, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” aroused the loudest of enthusiasm. Their reception at the final curtain was nothing short of a genuine ovation.
The list of others contributing to the ensemble is simply too long to discuss at any fair degree of length, so it must suffice to say that they contributed much to the success of this, the company’s first fully staged production of this year’s “SummerFest.” For those who enjoy a couple of hours of music and comedy, this production is a “must see.”
Kiss Me, Kate will be repeated at the Falk Auditorium on Sunday, July 10, at 2:00, Saturday, July 16, at 7:30, and Saturday, July 23, at 2:00. It is a fine production worthy of capacity audiences at the remaining performances.
For more information about tickets for this and upcoming events, casts, plot synopses and much more, please visit “SummerFest”, or take a look at our season preview. Would you like to see more articles and reviews from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!
Special thanks to the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for two complimentary press tickets.
The production team for Kiss Me, Kate –
Director and Choreographer, Mark Lamanna; Conductor, Douglas Levine; Scenic Designer, Narges Norouzi; Lighting Designer, Bob Steineck; Costume Designer, Oran Wongpandid; Assistant Costume Designer, Rachel Wyatt; Hair and Makeup Designer, Taylor Rouse; Assistant Director, Briana Sosenheimer; Dance Captain, Jamie Rafacz; Pianist, Zachary Rohlwing; Stage Manager, Kathleen Strakenas; Assistant Stage Managers, Erin Duffey and Sophia Marshall.
Photography: Patti Brahim