The Savoyards' Long, Sloppy 'Kiss'

The second act of
The second act of "Kiss Me, Kate" opens with a rousing "Too Darn Hot," one of the bright spots in the Washington Savoyards' production. (By Duane Hincy -- Washington Savoyards)
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Washington Savoyards' lackluster "Kiss Me, Kate" is a well intentioned but clumsy production. It is also a tribute to the Shakespeare in Washington festival ("Kiss Me, Kate" draws from "The Taming of the Shrew") by a company better known for interpreting Gilbert and Sullivan. One should note that the performers seem to be enjoying themselves greatly (more power to them!) even as they bedim the stage with a fog of amateurishness.

The show does have a couple of strengths, including an orchestra that spins out beautifully variegated musical textures to buoy up Cole Porter's songs. As for the performers above pit level, the top banana is unquestionably Michael Nansel, a silky-voiced veteran of the Washington National Opera who joins "Kate" in the lead role of Fred Graham.

According to the story line by Bella and Samuel Spewack, Fred is an actor feuding with tempestuous leading lady Lilli Vanessi (Sandy Bainum), who happens to be his ex-wife. Ironically, the two former spouses -- who really still love each other, gosh darn it -- are starring in a version of "Shrew." To complicate matters, two gangsters (Ron Sarro and Austin Wolfe) are strong-arming Fred for a debt that was, in fact, incurred by someone else.

This romantic mess takes nearly three hours to sort out in this rendering, directed by Hal Simons. The time does not exactly fly by. Things do pick up during Nansel's numbers -- especially during his melodious and drolly rueful "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?"

Bainum's performance is far less satisfying, partly because her voice, though strong, doesn't have a particularly beautiful tone. Her Lilli comes across as rather a pill. You can't help wishing that this diva's beau, Gen. Harrison Howell (zestfully played by Doug Bowles), would cart her off, allowing Fred to get on with his life.

The production's other major players are insufficiently well rounded. The golden-voiced Rosie Sowa, who plays the ingenue Lois Lane, sashays with sex-kitten flair through "Always True to You in My Fashion," but in nonmusical scenes her manner is stilted. Robert Mintz, who plays Bill, Lois's boyfriend, can do a mean pirouette, but he's not so good at acting or at carrying a tune. And whenever Sarro and Wolfe turn up as the gangsters, the production's pace crawls.

The members of the ensemble tend to look ill at ease on the stage, although the situation improves during the Act 2 curtain-raiser "Too Darn Hot." Credit for this goes to choreographer Douglas Yeuell.

Eleanor Dicks's costumes for the crowd scenes can be eyesores -- the hodgepodge of street clothes for the opening number is a case in point -- but Lilli's fashion-plate attire is snazzy. Lighting designer Neil McFadden supplies some fanciful floods of reds and purples, and scenic designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden provides a serviceable plywood set that spins to represent the stage and backstage areas for Fred and Lilli's "Shrew."

"Kiss Me, Kate" is the first Savoyards production in its new home at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The move to this comfortable new berth surely augurs well for the company.

Kiss Me, Kate, music and lyrics by Cole Porter; book by Bella and Samuel Spewack. Directed by Hal Simons; musical direction by N. Thomas Pedersen. With John Dow, Don Kenneth Mason, Matthew McGloin, Daniel Pushkin and others. About 2 hours and 50 minutes. Through March 17 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit

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