Wendy Jones Hill (above) and Steven Koehler (below) in Four Seasons Theatre's <i>Kiss Me, Kate</i>
I'm always impressed with the crowd at Four Seasons Theatre productions. Friday night, every seat was taken at Wisconsin Union Theater, where the local troupe presented Kiss Me, Kate (through Aug. 24). It's the first theater production at the remodeled venue, which is about to celebrate its 75th year.
Kiss Me, Kate is a Cole Porter musical based on The Taming of the Shrew. As the audience learned, the inspiration is probably Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne's production of Shakespeare's comedy, which opened Wisconsin Union Theater in 1939.
Lunt and Fontanne bear a close resemblance to Kiss Me, Kate's leads. There's debonair, narcissistic Fred Graham (Steven Koehler) and his ex-wife, the exceedingly dramatic Lilli Vanessi (Wendy Jones Hill). Kate gives the audience a show within a show. Graham and Vanessi grate on each other's nerves the way ex-partners often do. The crowd gets to see their backstage spats. On stage, as Petruchio and Katherine, the actors woo and seduce each other. When Petruchio's affection for Katherine grows, it also changes Graham's feelings about Vanessi. That's when things get really interesting.
Kiss Me, Kate brims with the hope and newfound excitement of post-World War II America. Who better to capture that than Porter, whose clever, double entendre-filled lyrics are as quick and quixotic as Sondheim's, but with the steam and sizzle of Kander and Ebb? In songs such as "Tom, Dick or Harry," "Always True to You in My Fashion" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," it's best to just sit back and listen. This is the time to appreciate the true, prescient genius that Porter was when he wrote the musical in the late 1940s.
But above all, the audience was there to see Four Seasons perform. As with last season's Les Misérables, the company brings an addictive level of excitement, energy and bravado. Both of Kiss Me, Kate's leads impress in their own way. Koehler's voice is warm and rich, while Hill's operatic. Other performers dazzle, too. Sarah Streich (Lois Lane and Bianca) and Michael Etzwiler (Bill Calhoun and Lucentio) have a sensuous chemistry that illuminates their characters. Streich in particular brings something special in her many solo numbers as the seductive Lane. Plus, big choral numbers are a joy to watch and hear; their power reaches clear to the back of the theater.
Mention must be made of Porter's most famous tune "Too Darn Hot," which opens the second act. Last night it practically brought down the house thanks to flawless dancing by Andy White (Paul). The number doesn't serve much purpose for the plot, but you get the feeling that Porter couldn’t help himself and left it in. It's that good of a song. The tune also lets Four Seasons do what they do best: burst with talent and a sheer joy for the theater. There's so much of both that it's hard to believe the troupe pack it all into one room.
[Editor's note: The review has been corrected to reflect that The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy.]