August 29th, 2014

“Kiss me Kate”, Wisconsin Union Theater

On Sunday afternoon, August 24th, we drove over to Madison to see Four Seasons Theatre’s production of Kiss Me Kate. This show re-opened the venerable Wisconsin Union Theater, which makes up the west end of the Wisconsin Memorial Union complex on the UW campus.
The Theater, now having its 75th season, has been under re-construction for the last two years, and I was interested to see what changes had been made. However, a lot of what was done wasn’t visible—new roofing, upgrades to spaces usually out of the public eye—although the Theater itself did seem to have been freshened up.
Four Seasons Theatre is a group local to Madison that’s been around for ten years, but this was my first experience with them. I would say they did a very fine job with Cole Porter’s classic adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, and we were very pleased to have seen it.
For those not familiar with the show, instead of merely making a musical version of Shakespeare, Porter made it a musical within a musical, set in the matrix of the fractious cast’s misadventures, conflicts, and love affairs. It is one of the classic “backstage” stories of the American theater.
Four Seasons did an excellent job with the show. Steven Koehler was very good as “Fred Graham,” the veteran actor who’s staking everything on the show as a comeback attempt. He’s matched by Wendy Jones Hill as “Lilli Vanessi,” Fred’s ex-wife who’s on the verge of giving up the stage. They were well supported by a high-quality cast, notably Sarah Streich as “Lois Lane,” and Tom Hensen and John Jajewski as the two thugs who intrude on the show in order to collect a gambling debt.
I don’t recall any particularly wonderful singing voices, but everyone was up to the challenges of the respective roles, and the orchestra generally supported them well.
Both stage business and dance choreography were cleverly planned and skillfully executed. A high-point was the Fosse-inspired dance for “Too Darn Hot” that opens the second act. Andy White as “Paul” lead the company in a sizzling production number that Georgie said was worth the price of admission alone.
The sets were very nicely done and allowed speedy and artistic scene changes. I generally liked the costumes. The late-40’s-era “backstage” costumes looked good and authentic, and most of the Shakespearean costumes fit well into my image of what a touring company of that time would look like—parti-colored tights and doublets for the men, and shepherdess dresses for the women. However, the costumes for “Kate” and “Petruchio” (several costume changes each) looked as though designed for a completely different production. They did make the “stars” stand out, but damaged the harmony of the production design.
All in all, this was a fine performance that we were glad to have seen. We will be keeping an eye on Four Seasons’ future presentations.

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