Theater Review: KISS ME, KATE (Marriott Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on December 17, 2021

in Theater-Chicago

AN UPDATED AND STILL OUTDATED KISS

In William Shakespeare’s 16th-century comedy The Taming of the Shrew, a wandering fortune hunter named Petruchio does battle with a fiery independent woman named Katherine. The woman’s wealthy father, weary of dealing with his bumptious daughter, hires Petruchio to woo and wed Katherine for a considerable reward. Petruchio proceeds to marry Katherine, breaking her spirit with mental and physical abuse, finally rendering her a compliant mate to her lord and master.

It sounds grim but the play is hilarious, yet for generations it also has raised the ire of those who object to its portrait a the male sexist society that brutalizes women, just because they are women. So theaters that stage The Taming of the Shrew have to walk a delicate line in confronting the cruel treatment of a proud woman like Katherine. Cole Porter took on the challenge in his 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate, and the result is one of the joys of the American theater — loaded with Porter’s inimitable wit and his brilliant score.

Porter and book authors Sam and Bella Spewack conceived of Kiss Me, Kate as a show within a show. Its outer shell takes place in Baltimore, where the company is rehearsing for a Broadway opening. The action deftly shifts between modern Baltimore and the streets of Padua, where Petruchio conducts his campaign to subdue the spitfire Katherine.

The Marriott Theatre’s revival has many highs and a few moments that aren’t so high. On the positive side are a collection of brilliantly conceived and performed dances choreographed by Alex Sanchez. There are star doubling turns by veteran Chicagoland actor Larry Adams as the musical’s leading man Fred Graham as Petruchio and Alexandra Palkovic as Lois Lane (not the Superman heroine), a modern young both a performer on the make and Bianca, Shrew‘s ingenue. As Lilli/Katherine, Graham’s feuding ex-wife, Susan Moniz sings radiantly as always, but she didn’t seem to consistently connect dramatically with either of the centuries in which her characters appear.

In the Playbill comments, Marriott director Johanna McKenzie Miller took note of the ongoing controversy about society’s unfair treatment of women and suggests that Kiss Me, Kate “might be interpreted through a different lens.” Miller’s comments put the audience on alert that they could prepare for a revisionist Taming of the Shrew that paid attention to Katherine’s grievances. The approach certainly is valid from a sociological standpoint but wouldn’t it undercut Shakespeare’s rowdy tale of the unequal battle of the sexes? Level the gender playing field and what becomes of Shakespeare’s knockabout humor, the main reason for the play’s existence?

Not to worry. Miller’s production doesn’t revamp any of the Bard’s sexist outrages. Following the original play, Katherine tries to fight the good fight, is eventually crushed by her new husband, and willingly accepts her status as a wife who will make no waves. At the end of the play, Katherine gives her “I am ashamed that people are so simple” speech that admonishes her fellow women to serve their masters cheerfully and willingly. It’s total capitulation, there though is a hint that the characters (both Lilli/Fred and Katherine/Petruchio) off stage have discovered that they honestly love each other and Katherine’s speech can be played as a mutual consent decree. But that point wasn’t clear at Marriott. Indeed a flustered chorus girl tried to read the speech while Lilli was absent, and the play ended weakly with Lilli/Katherine alone on stage apparently raising a glass of bubbly in triumph, claiming some kind of victory for both women, a victory that totally eluded me. The result was confusion where the goal should have been reconciliation.

There can be no quibble with the durable majesty of the Cole Porter score, a parade of hits like “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Wunderbar,” “So in Love, “Too Darn Hot” (brilliantly danced by the terrific ensemble), and “So in Love.” The clever and literate “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” was delivered by two gangsters who seemed to wander out of a Damon Runyon show. In a bit of nontraditional casting, Marriott substituted a woman for one of the thugs. On opening night Lillian Castillo got some laughs but seemed to force the humor a bit. Shea Coffman was fine as her partner. The reliable as always Terry Hamilton did well in the comic role of an army general with his eye on the ladies. Jonathan Butler-Duplessis led a magnificently athletic “Too Darn Hot.”

My nomination for the performer I can’t wait to see again is Alexandra Palkovic. She has unlimited singing and dancing chops, great looks (if I may inject a sexist note), and after overcoming an early stereotype as a silly airhead she turned both her characters into three-dimensional people. Her work in “Tom, Dick, and Harry” and “Always True to You in My Fashion” are total joys. The work by the chorus matches her step for step in skill and energy.

The design credits include Scott Davis for his sets, Theresa Ham for her spot-on 1940’s costumes, Jesse Klug for his lighting design, and Michael Daly for his sound. Once again Patti Garwood supervises the pit orchestra, nine musicians who sounded twice their number.

photos by Liz Lauren

Kiss Me Kate
The Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr. in Lincolnshire
Wed at 1 & 8; Thurs & Fri at 8; Sat at 4:30 & 8; Sun at 1 & 5; select Thursdays at 1
ends on January 16, 2022
for tickets, call 847.634.0200 or visit Ticketmaster
for more info, visit Marriott

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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