Point Park University brings a delightful mix of Cole Porter and William Shakespeare to their final season at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland with the backstage musical Kiss Me, Kate.
Winner of the first-ever Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949, Kiss Me, Kate takes place during the production of a musical version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Tensions mount when the egotistical leading man, director, and producer Fred Graham (Jeremy Spoljarick) is forced to play opposite with his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Katie Weinstein). As much as they hate each other, they still appear to be in love.
One could initially fault that notion, as Graham, has more than his eyes on Lois Lane (Hailie Lucille). She, however, is “So in Love” with her gambling boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Kurt Kemper). Lilli is also engaged to General Harrison Howell (Pierre Mballa) who promises to take her away from all the fame and adoration that comes from a life as a famous actress in theatre and the movies.
Bill is late to the rehearsal, as he has been out gambling and lost ten grand. In order to leave the game, Bill signs a marker in Fred’s name for the balance due! Just before the opening curtain of opening night, two loveable gangsters (Kevin Gilmond and Beau Bradshaw) show up in Fred Graham’s dressing room to collect the dough.
While this is going on, “the show must go on”. Taming of the Shrew is an old story. The oldest unpleasant daughter (Lilli Vanessi) must marry before the sweet younger sibling (Lois Lane) can wed. This musical Shrew shares the same similarity as Romeo and Juliet does to West Side Story.
Kiss Me, Kate is the winning combination the irreverent humor of two brilliant writers: Cole Porter and William Shakespeare. As with any Porter musical, the show’s tunes send you home humming and include the “So In Love,” “Wunderbar,” “Tom, Dick or Harry,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” “I Hate Men,” “Always True to You (In My Fashion)” and “Another Op’nin, Another Show.”
Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein seemed to be in a bit of a competition in their day, each creating shows with the newest techniques. R&H developed the integrated musical, Oklahoma. where the songs were actually connected to the script. Kiss Me, Kate was Porter’s response. It proved to be so popular that it won the first Tony Award for best musical and was the only Porter show to run for over one thousand performances in its first presentation on Broadway.
The real story here, however, is this production by the Conservatory Theatre of Point Park University. It is practically perfect in every way. If you went into the Rockwell Theatre thinking you were going to see a college level production with mostly undergraduates, that conception goes out the window within the first couple of numbers. This is first-class musical theatre in every way. Point Park has fact-based a reputation for producing “triple threats” actors who can brilliantly act, sing and dance.
This show only further reinforces that reputation. Lucille, Weinstein, Kemper, and Spoljarick have strong voices and can belt with the best hitting and sustaining those high notes. Lucille’s Lois Lane shows off her dancing skills as well in the fun numbers “Tom, Dick or Harry” and “Always True to You in My Fashion”. There isn’t a single number that the four leads perform that leaves you feeling it could be any better than this. A special kudo to Jordan McMillan who plays Lois Lane’s assistant Hattie, she gets the signature “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” number and delivers to the cheers of the audience. Mel Holley’s vocals and Gabe Reed Saxophone skills in “Too Darn Hot” put the second act opener over the top. Just when you think it can’t get any better or funnier, the two gangsters, who have developed their own love of theatre, deliver a comedy gem in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”.
Director and Choreographer Zeva Barzell has executed a brilliantly crafted unified production that really brings the skills and talents of her cast to the forefront. The entire ensemble of singers and dancers cannot go without mention, each had a fully develop and realized character, no one was lost or just going through the motions here. Musical Director Camille Rolla brought out the best in the singers as well as ten other musicians in the on-stage pit.
I mentioned a “unified production” early where all the elements of design fit seamlessly into and support the director’s vision. Barzell shows off the skills of Pittsburgh’s designers. Johnmichael Bohach has created a multilayered set, beautifully detailed in the theatre’s backstage area and suitably stylized for the Taming of the Shrew scenes. Bohach has a very long list of design credits and you can see why. Andrew David Ostrowski reprises his role as Pittsburgh’s busiest Lighting Designer enhancing Bohach’s design and sculpting the dancers with light. Steve Shapiro helms Sound Design for his eighth season which settled into a nearly invisible mix and a very realistic siren sound accompanying the General’s arrival. This show has a lot of costumes as characters have their streetwear, rehearsal clothes- and Shrew costumes. Veteran Point Park Costume Designer Cathleen-Crocker Perry misses no detail in any character’s costumes, the women’s gowns are gorgeous and the state of undress in “Too Darn Hot” conveys the double entendre beautifully. Kudos as well to the Stage Managers and run-crew, opening night as spot on.
Point Park moves its theatre companies downtown to their new Pittsburgh Playhouse adjacent to our Cultural District next season. Kiss Me, Kate is on par, perhaps better than anything you might choose see down the street at another theatre. The Playhouse will be a welcome and well-earned addition to our world class cultural scene downtown.
Point Park University Conservatory Company’s production of Kiss Me, Kate, runs now through October 29th at the Rockwell Theatre at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. For tickets click here.
Photos by John Altdorfer