Kiss Me, Kate, San Diego

From the cast with chemistry to the able direction and the sets and costumes, everything in this production of Cole Porter's backstage romp shines.

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Sam and Bella Spewack

Choreography by Peggy Hickey

Directed by Darko Tresnjak

The Old Globe, San Diego

July 1 – Aug. 9, 2015

The Globe’s lighthearted summer continues with the Cole Porter classic “Kiss Me, Kate,” a blissfully anachronistic, Broadway extravaganza. It’s a big, bawdy trip down memory lane and a fun send-up of egotistical actors and the theater in general.

Set in Baltimore (always good for a slant rhyme), the show follows a mid-century musical production of “Taming of the Shrew.” Fred Graham (Mike McGowan) is the seasoned and serially melodramatic actor who plays Petruchio and runs the production. He has “wisely” chosen to cast his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee), as Kate. To complicate matters — and they get quite complicated — Graham is interested in Lois Lane (Megan Sikora), who plays Bianca. She is dating Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes), who plays Lucentio and is up to his neck in gambling debts. These conflicts are played out both backstage and in front of a fictional Baltimore audience.

Everything about this production shines: cast, direction, set, costumes, music. The chemistry between McGowan and Barzee is palpable, as their offstage personas leak onstage and vice versa. McGowan perfectly captures the blustery Graham, who alternates between boundless self-confidence and visceral panic.

He has good company in Barzee, who easily pulls off Vanessi’s iconic diva and belts out “I Hate Men” with admirable verve. Sikora plays the endearingly ditzy Lane and simply crushes the songs “Tom, Dick or Harry” and “Always True to You in My Fashion.” Hanes presents as a slightly surly Gene Kelly and more than keeps up with his outstanding cast mates.

Brendan Averett and Joel Blum play the malapropism-loving gangsters come to collect the debt. They alone are worth the ticket price.

Kudos to choreographer Peggy Hickey for making decades-old dance vocabulary seem like it was invented yesterday. In particular, the big numbers for “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Tom, Dick or Harry” and especially “Too Darn Hot,” featuring an impressive James T. Lane, are a joy to watch.

Alexander Dodge’s sets capture the moldering decay backstage, as well as the shiny streets of Padua — Eraserhead interwoven with Small World. A nod to Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In” is particularly fun. Fabio Toblini’s costumes range from functional post-war to outlandish Renaissance, with the occasional contemporary flourish. One headdress comes straight out of “The Flintstones.”

As he did with “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” director Darko Tresnjak keeps all balls in the air, maximizing the bawdiness while minimizing the archaic gender stereotypes. He crafts his stellar cast into an impressively cohesive unit.

Even for a grouch like me, who approaches musicals with trepidation, “Kiss Me, Kate” hits all the marks. It’s just beautifully done.

Josh Baxt

San Diego,
Josh Baxt has an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and writes for a local nonprofit. His play, Like a War, was produced for the annual Fritz litz. Josh's short fiction has been published in the anthologies Sunshine Noir and Hunger and Thirst, as well as the journal City Works.