Running Time: 2 hrs, 20 min
Broadway is littered with revered and reviled musicals that take as their subjects themselves. As stupefyingly myopic as that can be (lump it in with songs about songwriting and movies about moviemaking), putting on a show and having to deal with the deadlines, the budgets, the egos, and a willful public is about as dramatic an undertaking as you could ever immerse yourself in. It's always do or die, and in the doing characters will go to the most bizarre lengths to avoid dying. Now and then, a real gem of a musical emerges from this self-referential (and self-reverential) morass.
So it is with Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, which receives a rather endearing revival by the Austin Playhouse under the direction of Don Toner. Porter wrote the songs, the story was co-penned by Sam and Bella Spewak; it's a tale of putting on a musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, but as things progress, the real story is not so much the success or failure of the play within the play, but the rekindling affection between the play's leading man and leading lady. He's the producer, director, and star; she's his ex-wife, reluctantly returning to the theatre after an iffy movie career. They're powder kegs, and they explode from time to time, with Porter's brilliant lyrics to aid them. As Frederick C. Graham and Lilli Vanessi, the pair of cross, star lovers, Tim Blackwood and Jill Blackwood are delightful (yes, they're husband and wife in real life one can only imagine how much fun they had running lines over breakfast). When they are moving toward each other, there are beautiful duets such as "Wunderbar" or the soulful solo taken in turn by each, "So in Love." When they are pissed off, there are even better numbers: "I Hate Men" for her and "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" for him. The latter two are set within the play within the play, but their added comedic impact comes from having just seen how badly the pair treat each other backstage. Tim Blackwood is smooth as the man in charge, confidently ordering the company about, dealing with Lilli as the turn demands: one minute lavishing praise on the diva, the next applying some old-fashioned corporal punishment, the next wooing her with a true heart. Jill Blackwood, a phenomenal singer and an equally fine actress, is superb as Lilli in what is pretty much a flawless performance, one that delves deeply into the character. Her attention to details humorous and serious make Lilli both sympathetic and silly, and always entertaining.
In supporting roles as another, younger couple on the ins and outs, Jennifer Blakeney Young and Quincy Nile Kuykendall provide some heat. She's cast as the ingenue, he's on-again-off-again suitor Bill Calhoun, their roles mirroring their backstage lives' bumpy ride that includes cute numbers like "Why Can't You Behave?" and "Always True to You in My Fashion." They and the adept chorus also turn in a very tight "Too Darn Hot," the extraneous dance number, here excellently performed on the small Playhouse stage as choreographed by Carlos Ferreira. And hats off to Michael Stuart and Hans Venable as the erudite gangsters charged with the wonderful number "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." The pair embodies the atmosphere of fun (and ever-so-slightly wicked humor) that makes this production such a success.
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