Continuing its struggle to bounce back to financial solvency, the Paper Mill Playhouse is doing what it does best: a proven musical classic from Broadway’s golden age. Cole Porter’s 1948 tuner “Kiss Me, Kate” is back in fine form with ravishing voices, irresistible musical allure and an eyeful of spirited choreography that takes one’s breath away.
Sam and Bella Spewack’s book chronicles the backstage feud between temperamental diva Lilli Vanessi (Michele Ragusa) and her egocentric leading man and former husband Fred Graham (Mike McGowan), which spills over into an out-of-town tryout of Shakespeare’s comic battle of the sexes, “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Porter’s score (his personal favorite) is a bountiful spring tonic, boasting witty lyrics, sublime ardor and a rhapsodic melodic structure that easily seduces its listeners. It doesn’t get much better than this, from the lyrical “So in Love” and the waltzing infection of “Wunderbar” to the fickle allure of “Always True to You in My Fashion.”
Ragusa boasts a sweet voice with gorgeous top notes. Her bounding declaration, “I Hate Men,” is a hilarious portrait of shrewish rage, and when she calms down she is beautifully poised.
McGowan brings his rich baritone voice and considerable flavor to his Petruchio as he laments the loss of past amours with “Where Is the Life of Late I Led?”
Doubling as the winsome Bianca and showgirl Lois Lane, Amanda Watkins’ flirty dumb blonde is all sugar and spice with a teasing, naughty edge. And as played by Gordon Joseph Weiss and William Ryall, the Runyon-esque comic hoodlums with itchy trigger fingers turn “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” into a hilarious vaudeville turn.
Patti Colombo’s brilliantly structured choreography is heightened by bounding leaps, dizzying gymnastic patterns and hot jitterbugging. Complementing Watkins for solo spots in “Tom, Dick or Harry” are Stephen Carrasco, Timothy J. Alex and Wes Hart. Each courting dancer offers dazzling individual turns that bring to mind the union of Bob Fosse, Tommy Rall and Bobby Van in the 1953 film adaptation. Alex also takes a buoyant solo spin in “Bianca.”
Appropriately, hot dance designs also complement “Too Darn Hot,” the second act opener that has little to do with plot, but provides a torrid ensemble turn, led here by Eugene Fleming.
Director James Brennan has smoothly interwoven the broad comic hi-jinks with the backstage romance, and even at nearly three hours, the show moves like a bullet. Martin Pakledinaz’s nicely muted costume designs create a fanciful Elizabethan atmosphere.