Nothing beats a Cole Porter musical. His canon as a whole captures a very specific moment in the history of American music—a time when love songs dominated the airwaves and earworms were a dime a dozen. Whenever he took his talents to the stage, he drafted swinging melodies that made way for jaw-dropping dance numbers and swoon-worthy vocal performances.
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre is ending its 2015-16 season with Porter’s most successful musical, Kiss Me, Kate, onstage through March 27. Based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and set in June 1948, Kiss Me, Kate is a musical within a musical that pits actor/director Fred Graham against his ex-wife/Hollywood actress Lilli Vanessi. Both star in Graham’s adaptation of the Shrew (playing Petruchio and Katharine, respectively) while dealing with their own offstage turmoil. Throw in a gambling debt and a couple of goons, and you’re left with a hilarious romp that redefines the meaning of “the show must go on.”
|Peter Reardon (Fred/Petruchio) and Sally Wilfert (Lilli/Katharine) in Kiss Me, Kate at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. Photo by Jen Vasbinder|
Above all, Kiss Me, Kate is a musical about show business—making it the perfect vehicle for the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. The Maltz derives great pleasure in the craft of production, in the process of staging kick-you-in-the-gut, awe-inspiring musicals. The three main creative forces behind this interpretation (music director Helen Gregory, choreographer Marcos Santana, and director Peter Flynn) excel at making the material feel fresh, thanks in part to a stellar cast.
Peter Reardon portrays the egotistical, occasionally charming Fred Graham, bringing to life a misogynistic goofball the audience will love to hate. He chases Lilli around stage with a whip and jeers her with such quips as “You bit King Kong and gave him rabies.” Beyond his impressive vocals, Reardon’s greatest achievement is delivering a convincing machismo attitude without totally alienating the audience. True, his recount of past conquests in “Where is the Life That Late I Led?” sends shivers down the spine of every feminist within a 10-mile radius. However, the entire musical is tinged with irony, and Reardon taps into that to unleash a killer comedic performance.
|Sally Wilfert (Lilli/Katharine) and Peter Reardon (Fred/Petruchio) in Kiss Me, Kate at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. Photo by Jen Vasbinder|
Sally Wilfert absolutely slays as the self-obsessed starlet Lilli Vanessi. Let’s start with her voice, which is one of the most amazing to ever echo in the Maltz auditorium. She turns a quintessential twentieth-century aria like “So in Love” into a breathtaking ode to love lost and love yet to be rekindled. Then, she puts her vocals on the backburner in favor of pure comic gold in “I Hate Men.” Between mimicking childbirth and finding unique twists on the repeated refrain, she leaves the audience howling with laughter and simultaneously fighting the urge to yell out “yes, queen!”
Other cast standouts include Shayla Benoit as the ditsy Lois Lane, Antuan “Magic” Raimone as her philandering love interest Bill Calhoune, and Danny Rutigliano and John Treacy Egan as First Man and Second Man, two mobsters sent to swindle Graham for a debt incurred by Calhoune. If it sounds confusing that’s because it is. But there’s nothing confusing about Rutigliano and Egan’s undeniable chemistry. The duo exude pure glee when given the chance to appear in Graham’s play and, once their services are no longer needed, ham it up in one of the show’s most memorable numbers “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
|Peter Reardon (Fred/Petruchio), John Treacy Egan (Second Man), and Danny Rutigliano (First Man) in Kiss Me, Kate at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. Photo by Jen Vasbinder|
And, of course, one cannot forget the ensemble. Porter clearly had the most fun with the chorus numbers because they all showcase the art of putting on a show. “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” is one of the greatest opening numbers of all time and this chorus quickly taps into its innate energy. The second act opener, “Too Darn Hot,” is just as powerful. Choreographer Marcos Santana unleashes his best work here with fosse-inspired moves that convey the sensuality of a hot summer’s night.
It takes an army to bring a musical like this to life. The best thing about Kiss Me, Kate is, because it’s a musical within a musical, the audience is illuminated to this fact and is able to get an idea of just what goes into staging a production. From the excitement of the first rehearsal to the relief of a curtain call, there certainly is no business like show business.
|Brandon Contreras (left) leads the ensemble in “Too Darn Hot,” part of Kiss Me, Kate at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. Photo by Jen Vasbinder|