REVIEW: Kiss Me, Kate (Circle Theatre)

          
     

The Taming of Cole Porter

 

 

Jonathan Altman, Jake Autizen, Rachel Quinn, Wes Drummond - Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatre

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
Kiss Me, Kate
  
Written by Cole Porter and Bella Spewack
Directed by
Bob Knuth
at
Circle Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through Jan 30  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

What you want with this musical revival is to hear a giant click, the sound of everything going right in Circle Theatre’s hoped-for perfect revival of Cole Porter’s musical-within-a-musical. For director and set designer Bob Knuth what’s already perfect is a sparkling script depicting the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of temperamental thespians. Modeled on the ever-excitable thespian duo of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne (a fairy tale marriage in every way), hellion Lili and egomaniac Fred enact a Jonathan Altman, Jake Autizen, Rachel Quinn, Wes Drummond - Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatrelife-imitates-art parallel to the quarreling lovers they croon in a Baltimore performance of “The Taming of the Shrew.” More than before, relocated to Oak Park, Circle Theatre now has a stage wide enough to embrace all of Kevin Bellie’s cinemascopic dance routines, which in their previous Forest Park digs five blocks west on Madison Street threatened to burst at the seams.

If a spinoff can improve on its source, this toxically witty 1948 gem, which restored Cole Porter to Broadway glory after a disappointing ten-year dry spell, betters the Bard. Both a hymn to the neuroses that nurture showbiz eccentricities and extremes, it’s also a witty sendup of the perils that follow when narcissistic Broadway stars perform in private as much as under the lights. For these stagestruck souls the sound of no one applauding during their domestic quarrels must be maddening. Never has a show, backstage and centerstage, had more reason to go on.

Crafting many moments to the max, Knuth transforms Porter’s gift into a promising assemblage of perfectly timed verbal and physical comedy, sometimes superior singing, contagious dancing, dazzling costumes, period-perfect wigs, and serviceable sets. But the hard work of the 23 eager-beaver performers is critically undermined by Carolyn Brady Riley’s heavy-handed musical direction: The culprit here is the (minimal for Cole Porter) four-person band who perversely seem to make up for their small number by playing too loud throughout (a vice that’s also afflicted past Circle Theatre shows). Accompaniment does not mean overkill. No one wants these singers to use mikes but on opening night they were more than challenged to sing and speak out these brilliant Porter lyrics and, because the orchestra wouldn’t let them, a lot of laughs died along with the words. Adding mikes would only escalate the screamfest. The solution is the taming of this band.

 

John Roeder, Andy Baldeschweiler, Tommy Bullington - Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatre Andy Baldeschweiler and Jenny Sophia 3 - Kiss Me Kate -

Everything hinges on the chemistry between the tamer and the shrew: Jennie Sophia’s Lili (who reminds us of the young Patti Lupone) isn’t just the spitfire diva who craves to be domesticated; she delivers the dreamer (“So in Love”), desperate for the right excuse to stop fighting love. Equally commanding as Petruchio or his hammy self, Andy Baldeschwiler’s Fred never drops a joke in his patter numbers (“Where Is The Life That Late I Led?”), except when the orchestra drowns him out. At least he gets to register the sheer joy of singing “Wunderbar” every night. But, given a hostile accompaniment, he strains more than he should to unevenly deliver songs that should sound as effortless as they were composed 62 years ago.

Rachel Quinn and Wes Drummond couldn’t be sweeter second bananas, as venal Lois Lane and trusting Bill Calhoun wonder “Why Can’t You Behave?” A crowd-pleasing, vaudevillian sensation, John Roeder and Tommy Bullington are the vaudevillian gangsters whose “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is as funny as you can get without asphyxiating an audience on their own laughs.

But the signature triumph belongs to the hard-hoofing, all-crooning chorus, whose Lindy-hopping, jitterbugging dances look totally authentic and still seem improvised on the spot. If only the orchestra could have brought out all the sensuous sounds that Porter intended for songs that can be treasured and never bettered.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

Cast of Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatre

 

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REVIEW: The Philadelphia Story (Circle Theatre)

‘The Philadelphia Story’ haunted by ghosts of movies past

 

Kevin Anderson, Laura McClain, and Josh Hambrock

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
The Philadelphia Story
   
Written by Philip Barry
Directed by Jim Schneider
at Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, Forest Park (map)
Through Sept. 5   |   Tickets: $20–$24 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Any production of The Philadelphia Story naturally evokes celluloid comparisons to Kathryn Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in the 1940 film. Inspired by the real life Main Line heiress Hope Montgomery Scott, the class-conscious play opened in 1939 with Hepburn as spoiled, self-righteous rich girl Tracy Lord — a role she reprised in the Oscar-winning film. The Philadelphia Story also formed the basis for the 1956 musical, High Society, so there are those movie memories to contend with, too.

Katelyn Smith, Jhenai Mootz, and Josh Hambrock Yet that shouldn’t mean a theater can’t put its own spin on the show. In its one big drawback, Circle Theatre’s production too often feels like a ghostly reenactment of the film.

Laura McClain, as Tracy, channels Hepburn for all she’s worth, while Josh Hambrock, as journalist Macauley "Mike" Connor, appears possessed by Stewart, with every drawl and facial twitch down pat. It’s uncannily fascinating, but I went to the theater to see a play, not to participate in a séance.

As Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, Kevin Anderson (not to be confused with Kevin Anderson), deserves kudos for not trying to reanimate Cary Grant. Unfortunately, his coolly puckish performance sometimes comes off as more smirking than suave. Moreover, his interactions with the others seem to accentuate their derivative mannerisms.

However, if you can get over the sense that you might just as well have stayed home with Netflix, Philip Barry’s dryly witty script transcends all.

On the verge of Tracy’s second marriage, Connor, who has become reluctantly infatuated, and Haven, with some help from Tracy’s smart-aleck kid sister (spunky, smut-faced Katelyn Smith), are bent on trying to prevent Tracy from wedding her stuffy, middle-class fiancé, George Kittredge (an appropriately stiff Luke Renn). The priggish Kittredge determinedly puts her on a pedestal. Though impatient with human frailties — the philandering of her father (Tom Viskocil), for example, and her former husband’s drinking — Tracy isn’t so sure she likes being cast as an ice goddess.

Josh Hambrock and Laura McClain Luke Renn, Laura McClain, Josh Hambrock, and Kevin Anderson

Bob Knuth’s elegant drawing-room set and Elizabeth Wislar‘s smart period costumes (particularly for lovely Jhenai Mootz, who portrays a world-weary Elizabeth Imbrie, the photographer who accompanies Connor to the Lords’ home) give us a handsome look back in time. Director Jim Schneider has wisely kept the original three-act format.

Some of the sensibilities behind this farce seem dated today, but it’s still an awfully funny comedy. If you aren’t bothered by ghosts, you’ll like this production fine.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Entire cast of Philadelphia Story - Circle Theatre - 006

 Entire Cast of "Philadelphia Story”   

 

     
     

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