By Cindy Whitehair and Perry Whitehair
Last night Perry and I went to see Kiss Me Kate at the Empress Theatre in Magna. Kiss Me Kate is one of those plays within a play. The music and lyrics by Cole Porter, tells the story of a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew. The onstage conflict is matched off stage by stars Fred Graham/Pertruchio (Josh Astle) and Lilli Vanessi /Katherine (Emily Wells) who are celebrating the one year anniversary of their divorce. Fred is interested in Lois Lane/Bianca (Emily Preston) who is dating Bill Calhoun/Lucentio (Curtis Nash) and Lilli is engaged to General Harrison Howell (Nate McDonald). When flowers from Fred, meant for Lois are delivered Lilli in error the off stage drama quickly boils over onstage to hilarious results.
The interactions between the two romantic couples (Josh Astle/Emily Wells and Curtis Nash/Emily Preston) were spot on. The couples were well matched vocally and visually. You really had no problems believing that they were couples.
The relationship between Fred/Pertruchio and Lilli/Kate was well played. One of the things that struck me the most about both characters is that it was not just established by lines and lyrics. You really believed that they were an off and on couple. Ms. Well’s body language during her scenes as Kate was big but not over the top. It really paid off as her facial expression often spoke louder than her lines. Her rendition of “I Hate Men” was riotously funny as a result. Mr. Astle ranged from ego-driven to dejected in a manner of a few seconds and even fewer words.
The relationship between Lois/Bianca and Bill was not quite as tight but it was still quite good. Nash’s cocky gambler was matched by Ms. Preston’s spunky dancer holding on for her big break.
Troy Larsen and Kevin Pope positively stole the show however, as gangsters hanging around the show to make sure that a $10,000 gambling debt gets repaid.
One of the things that we noted is just how much this cast truly loved one another and this show. They put their all into this show. Nothing was done by rote. Scene changes were done in character and with a lot of the usual banter you would expect in a situation where you have to get a lot done in a hurry. It created a purpose and a flow that made scene changes something that held your attention.
The set, designed by director Nancy Jensen, is sparse and perfect considering the majority of the show’s action takes place back stage. As you walk in, the ghost light and Pops (the stage doorman played by Kelly Oveson) greet you, giving the audience the feel that they too are part of the backstage action. The show lets the audience in on the behind the scenes action including more than a few backstage jokes – the off stage cast responses to the stage manager’s (Robbie O’Kelley) call of “PLACES” had the actors in the audience roaring with laughter.
Speaking of the direction, Nancy Jensen’s direction was marvelous. There were clear breaks between the Shakespearean and the non- Shakespearean dialog. The stage pictures were all fabulous – there were no distractions and you were able to see all of the action without having to swivel back and forth.
The choreography by Chalese Craig was outstanding. The dancing in second act opener “Too Darned Hot” was worth the price of admission alone.
Curtis Bailey is one of the many unsung heroes at the Empress. His lighting and sound design was up to his usual standard. Although we did overhear an interesting discussion about the sound at intermission. One audience member complained that he thought the music was a little too loud (we were sitting right under one of the main stage speakers. One of his companions explained that it had to be a little loud so that the actors could hear it on stage. If there was anything to take from it, maybe the cast could have sung out a little more?
Costuming by Mary Ellen Smith and Diane Pope was fantastic. They had their work cut out for them – essentially costuming two shows at once but they rose to the occasion.
All in all, the Empress’ Kiss Me Kate is not just another show. It is a bright, shining star…a truly “wunderbar” experience.
Full disclosure – Perry and I are season ticket holders at the Empress and the Empress is our family’s “home” theater. Until recently, I was in charge of marketing at the Empress (now I am Public/Community Relations for the theater). Our son discovered his love of theater here and we had many friends on the stage last night. The Empress holds a very special place in our hearts.
Kiss Me, Kate plays Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM through April 12 at the Empress Theatre (9104 West 2700 South, Magna). Tickets are $10. For more information, visit www.empresstheatre.com.