Soulful ballads, jazzy production numbers... and a rousing salute to show biz!
In Marriott Theatre's gloriously sung revival of "Kiss Me, Kate," Broadway diva Lilli Vanessi gives as good as she gets. And that's saying something.
The central character in Cole Porter's backstage tuner -- a play-within-a-play about a pair of quarreling exes who reunite in 1948 Baltimore for a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" -- Lilli plays ill-tempered Katherine to ex-husband Fred's domineering Petruchio.
The source material, Shakespeare's problematic comedy about a husband who abuses his wife in order to "tame" her, has sparked endless debates. And while Marriott's "Kate" doesn't entirely resolve them, director Johanna McKenzie Miller's production makes a shrewd statement that had me reconsider my perceptions.
Undisputed is the quality of Porter's droll, delectable score, which incorporates soulful ballads, jazzy production numbers, a waltz, a rousing salute to show biz and a dandy comedy tune that nearly stopped the show.
In Susan Moniz, who plays quick-tempered Lilli, and Larry Adams, who plays her imperious ex-husband Fred, Miller (who directed the premiere of First Folio Theatre's similarly inspired "Shrew'd" in 2018) has principals whose lush, operatic voices ideally showcase songs like "So in Love" and "Were Thine That Special Face." But there's much more to Moniz's and Adams' performances than soaring vocals. For all their sparring, affection lingers; affection and regret, which the expressive Moniz makes plain during "So in Love." She's equally adept conveying the depth of Lilli's ire in the ferociously funny "I Hate Men" directed at Fred who's involved with Lois (Alexandra Palkovic), a lounge singer turned aspiring ingénue cast as Katherine's younger sister Bianca in the play-within.
As for the overly affectionate Lois, she's dating Bill (Daniel May), a hoofer in debt to a mobster whose henchman show up at the theater to collect and get caught up in the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. Hilariously played by Lillian Castillo and Shea Coffman, Gun Woman and Gun Man look and sound like they stepped out of a production of "Guys and Dolls." Their performance of the popular, pun-filled "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" nearly stole the show.
The calm center in the middle of this theatrical storm is the coolheaded stage manager Ralph. The part is played by Iris Lieberman, who delivers a crowd-pleasing cameo in "Too Darn Hot," the showstopper that opens Act II of Miller's briskly entertaining production. A scorching number, it features the nimble Jonathan Butler-Duplessis leading a hugely talented cast left breathless (in the best possible way) by Alex Sanchez's high-octane choreography.
Sanchez's imaginative staging of "Bianca," in which May dances with a robe hanging from a garment rack, makes a minor tune memorable. But it's his inventive, balletic-athletic style that truly impresses, especially in the innuendo-filled "Tom, Dick, or Harry," in which suitors May, Alex Joseph Stewart and Alejandro Fonseca vie for the affections of Palkovic's Bianca. (Palkovic and May reunite in the second act for another Porter standout, the cheeky "Always True to You in My Fashion").
Ultimately, this show belongs to Moniz, whose performance marks her return to the Chicago area after three years on tour with "Fun Home" and "Phantom of the Opera." Her Lilli fights the gender war on stage, the battlefield with which she's familiar. That's the source of her power and she exercises it well, with several well-placed kicks to Fred's posterior. What a homecoming it is.
"Kiss Me, Kate" is also something of a homecoming for Miller. An accomplished actress, Miller makes her Marriott directorial debut with this production, which, for the record, includes some trims. Miller understands that problematic plays offer opportunities for solutions. She takes advantage of that opportunity in the production's final moments. Marriott's "Kiss Me, Kate" doesn't conclude as we expect, but the ending satisfies. And that says something.