A Kissable “Kate” at Vanguard

By Tom Titus

Long before Stephen Sondheim was recognized as Broadway’s premier composer/lyricist, a clever fellow named Cole Porter could justifiably lay claim to that honor.

Porter, known as much for his catchy lyrics as well as a smooth musical style (rhyming “find” with “wind,” as in “gone with the,” for instance), had his biggest hit in 1948 with the Tony-winning “Kiss Me, Kate,” which Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University currently is offering in a lustrous revival.

“Kate,” with a still-effective book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, revolves around a Broadway troupe mounting a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and centers on a once-married, now contentious couple starring in the show under the leading man’s direction. Naturally, affection lurks under all the ill feelings in the case of both parties.

At Vanguard, director Susan K. Berkompas has assembled a strong, energetic cast to back up the leads – both of whom exhibit terrific singing voices. The icing on this tasty cake, however, is some dynamic choreography from the actress playing Bianca, who steals the show repeatedly with her high-kicking dancing style.

Jordan Laemmlen may not be physically prepossessing as director Fred Graham, who doubles as Petruchio, but his rich, full-bodied voice is commanding in itself. He’s as convincing in romantic solos (“Were Thine That Special Face”) as he is in satirical moments (“Where is the Life That Late I Led?”) – which showcases Porter’s fertile imagination.

As the fiery Lili Vanessi, a screen star returning to the theater, Kelsey Coleman brings a haughty narcissistic quality to her character. She also renders as much heart (“So in Love”) as hostility (“I Hate Men”) in her performance and her scenes with Laemmlen crackle with comedic conflict.

As fine as these two are, though, audiences will leave the Lyceum Theater marveling at the superb dancing talent of Bretlyn Schmitt, who both choreographed the show and renders an incendiary performance as Lois/Bianca. The tall, slender Schmitt excels in the role most moviegoers associate with the great Ann Miller as she oozes erotically through numbers like “I’m Always True to You in My Fashion.”

Joshua David Martin is fine as Schmitt’s slippery paramour and co-star Bill Calhoun, whose felonious forgery brings two other guys into the picture. These would be Mark Austin Nunn and Seth Kennard as the unnamed debt collectors who tickle the audience with their treatment of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” earning two encores in the process.

Ian Jenkins scores as the Army general out to separate Lili from her theatrical bondage (in mid-performance). Movie fans will be surprised to learn that it’s he, not Lois, who sings “From This Moment On.”

Schmitt’s choreography keeps the dancers on their toes, literally, in such production numbers as “Too Darn Hot,” which may be somewhat overextended. She sets a torrid pace with her acrobatic style.

Paul Eggington’s rotating setting gives playgoers a front and back view reminiscent of “Noises Off.” Costumes, particularly those in the Shakespearean scenes, are beautifully accomplished by Lia M. Hansen, while musical director Janice Rodgers Wainwright keeps the show nicely upbeat.

“Kiss Me, Kate” is Cole Porter’s magnum opus and it receives a rousing revival from an enthusiastic company at Vanguard University, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa, where it continues weekends through April 26. Call (714) 668-6145 for ticket information.

– tt –

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