“Kiss Me, Kate” at 6th Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theatre, Santa Rosa CA

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack
Directed by Craig Miller

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Photos by Eric Chazankin:

Left photo, Taylor Bartolucci (l), Barry Martin

Right photo, Barry Martin and Cast

Sweet “Kiss” From 6th Street

For the “Curtain-Up!” season kickoff at 6th Street Playhouse, Artistic Director Craig Miller and Managing Director Michael Fontaine have raised the bar of excellence for local theatre. Their spectacular presentation of the classic American musical comedy “Kiss Me, Kate” is a skyrocket of a show, one that is sure to resonate with a bang throughout the Bay Area. It’s absolutely the best show they’ve staged, a bit of Broadway right here in Santa Rosa.

“Kiss Me Kate” first appeared on Broadway in December 1948 to great critical and popular acclaim. It went on to see over 1000 performances in its first run, and received 5 Tony Awards in 1949, including Best Musical – the first ever to win this award. The book by Sam and Bella Spewack is supposedly based on the real-life theatre couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, whose backstage bickering was the stuff of legend. Many of the songs, among the best - and last - ever to be written by Cole Porter, became instant hits and are still popular today.

The musical’s theme is the ever-popular showbiz back-story. Set in postwar Baltimore, the action takes place entirely at Ford’s Theatre, where a talented theatre troupe is putting on a musical production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. Their two recently divorced lead actors, Lilli and Fred, are playing Katharine and Petruchio. They are plainly still carrying the proverbial torch for each other, a torch that blazes up when it’s fueled by jealousy and those chips on their shoulders. The offstage sparring of Lilli and Fred parallels the onstage animosity of Katherine and Petruchio. This battle of wills is grand, glorious fun, and carries the show from beginning to end.

At 6th Street, “Kiss Me, Kate” opens on a theatre’s bare stage, a solitary light bulb glowing on a stand. The cast arrives one by one, and before you know it, the company is assembled for the high-energy “Another Openin’, Another Show”, led by Daniela Innocenti Beem, who really knows how to belt out a number. Then the non-stop entertainment begins. The entire show is so good that it’s hard to pick standouts. The haunting “So In Love” and the ferociously funny “I Hate Men”, were both sung by the amazing Taylor Bartolucci as Lilli/Katherine. The performances of Bartolucci, and co-star Barry Martin as Fred/Petruchio, deserve special mention not only for their musical talent, but for their strong characterizations reminiscent of great Broadway performers of the past, which makes them ideal for this kind of show. The smoldering, jazzy “Too Darn Hot” was performed with exceptional sizzle and sass by the Company. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, a witty and charming routine by Jeremy Berrick and Rahman Dalrymple, drew cheers from the audience. Side note: these two wiseguys should take their vaudeville act on the road. They brought down the house.

Kudos to Director Craig Miller, who brings new vision to 6th Street after his arrival just a few short months ago from Houston, where he founded the Texas Repertory Theatre Company. He combines his formidable experience and profound love of theatre to bring us this affectionate tribute to the traditional Broadway musical. He has inspired his cast and crew to new heights, with meticulous staging and playful, subtle touches. They are his trademarks and can be seen everywhere, starting with the ensemble cast’s spot-on timing, perfect vocals and flawless momentum. The cleverly complex and colorful set design is by Paul Gilger, the local architect who designed the 6th Street Playhouse and whose resume reads like a who’s-who of entertainment. Top-notch Musical Director and Conductor Janis Dunston Wilson leads the 11-piece orchestra with such a spirit of fun and energy that’s it’s a delight to behold. The choreography is by veteran hoofer Tony Gianchetta who whipped the frisky cast of 19 into excellent shape.

There’s romance and laughs with sexy sirens, goofy gangsters, great music and dancing. It’s hard to miss when you combine the fabulous music of Cole Porter and a classic Shakespearean comedy. When you add amazing hand-picked talent into the mix, the success of “Kiss Me, Kate” at 6th Street seems guaranteed.

When: Now through September 4, 2011
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2 p.m. Saturdays (beginning August 13) and Sundays
Tickets: $15 to $35
Location: 6th Street Playhouse
GK Hardt Theatre
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com