Classic Backstage Musical

Cole Porter's marvelous score animates Studio Connections' uneven 'Kiss Me, Kate'

Kiss Me, Kate begins with an industrial-looking lamp standing at center stage, its bare bulb shining in the darkness. If you're familiar with theater lore, you'll know this is a "ghost light," which is traditionally left onstage while a theater is empty.

It's a fitting symbol for an old-fashioned musical that revels in the backstage details and traditions of the theatrical life.

The show is currently being brought to life by Studio Connections' daVinci Players. DaVinci is something of a gateway troupe, offering performers a bridge between acting classes and parts in Tucson's larger theater scene. Its performers range anywhere from rough to finely polished.

Kiss Me, Kate is not the daVinci Players' most accomplished production. The choreography and technical elements are ambitious, but the uneven execution leans toward the amateur side. Even so, this is a joyful, heartfelt show, bolstered by strong performances. A wonderful nine-piece orchestra, skillfully led by music director Harriet Siskin, pumps out Cole Porter's unforgettable score.

Kiss Me, Kate was written in 1948, partially in reaction to Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, an innovative 1943 work that integrated song and dance into its storytelling. Porter, after a string of flops, wanted to try something similar, and in the process created one of his most lasting works.

The story revolves around two feuding actors: Fred Graham (Kit Runge) and Lilli Vanessi (Amy DeHaven). Once married to each other and now divorced, these two are performing together in a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and they're bent on making each other miserable. (The play's real-life authors, wife-and-husband team Bella and Samuel Spewack, were experiencing their own marital conflicts and seem to have channeled their frustrations into the script.)

Lilli flaunts her new engagement to a prominent, wealthy military man (Robert Ulsrud), while Fred carries on with Lois (Jennifer Ackerley), another actress in the show. Lois, meanwhile, remains faithful "in her fashion" to Bill, a fellow actor and compulsive gambler, played by Brian Levario.

Throw in a bouquet of flowers delivered to the wrong woman and a pair of star-struck gangsters sent to collect on a debt, and things begin to fall apart—onstage and off.

DeHaven and Runge are wonderfully cast as the leads, Lilli and Fred. DeHaven's soprano suits her diva character, and "So in Love" is a great vehicle for her broad vocal range. Her full-throttle performance of "I Hate Men" is, frankly, terrifying, but she is able to open up Lilli's vulnerable side as well.

Runge's powerful baritone is always a pleasure to listen to, and it's especially good in "Were Thine That Special Face" and "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" Runge has enough natural charm to balance Fred's less-appealing qualities, though the amount of pelvic thrusting he's been asked to do to underline the bawdier Shakespearean jokes is a little disconcerting.

As Lois, Ackerley delightfully captures all the elements of the '40s-era bimbo caricature: the bubbly laugh, the cooing voice, the posture calculated to emphasize her curves. Her singing shines in the bluesy "Why Can't You Behave?" However, "Always True to You in My Fashion" poses a greater challenge. She's a fine dancer, but the movement taxes her singing ability as the song progresses.

Levario, as Bill, is another of the show's strong dancers. He isn't given much opportunity to sing solo, but is featured in a number of ensemble numbers, including "Tom, Dick or Harry" (with Andy Gonzalez and Timothy David Hollis).

Jacob Brown and Rob Roberts excel as the gangsters. Brown ought to have more leading roles, because when he plays a minor character, he consistently steals the show. Roberts delivers his comic lines brilliantly. This pair stumbles only in the comic showstopper "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," when many of Porter's lyric witticisms were lost through imprecise diction.

Ulsrud is appropriately stuffy as Lilli's fiancé, General Howell. While planning a future indiscretion with Lois, he somehow manages to capture both lust and pomposity. But his song with DeHaven, "From This Moment On," is an odd match for a character so lacking in warmth.

An additional shout-out goes to Maria Gallardo as Hattie. It's a minor part, but Gallardo's rendition of "Too Darn Hot" is sultry and powerful. She knocks it out of the park.

With such wonderful performances, what keeps this production from reaching its potential? The first problem is the choreography, which is critical in a musical of this kind. Debbie Runge, who does both directing and choreographing, has created classic showbiz routines, but their execution lacks precision and pizzazz. Either more intensive practice or simpler movements would have helped the performers.

That said, a dance break in "Too Darn Hot," featuring Ackerley, Levario, Gonzalez and Nora Petty, is a choreographic highlight. Equally enjoyable is a simple routine performed by Nadia Fike, Savannah Runge and Tiffany McClelland to great comic effect.

The second problem is that the wireless microphones are more distracting than helpful. Once a song starts, the singers' voices suddenly boom from overhead speakers, often accompanied by loud pops and crackling. The space is small enough, and the orchestra muted enough by its location to the side, that amplification may be unnecessary.

Lastly, the daVinci Players are apparently still getting used to their new venue at St. Francis in the Foothills. The stage is shallower than at their former home, with fewer entrances and exits. Some experimentation may be required to find ways to make stage movements and scene changes more fluid.

Most importantly, though, director Runge has instilled in her cast a love for this show and great joy in performing it—which, in the end, is exactly what Kiss Me, Kate is all about.

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