Harrison Asher Smith, Lucy Rhoades. Photo by Ann Kielbasa.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre through July 31

"Kiss Me, Kate" literally has something for everybody: music, story, dialogue that takes you by storm, dancing that leaves you breathless. The company is as strong as the principals. It is another triumph for the Mac-Haydn.

Kiss Me, Kate
Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York
Book written by Sam and Bella Spewack, songs by Cole Porter
Directed by Erin Spears Ledford

“Strange dear. . .but true dear.”

Two couples struggle to make love work. That’s the plot of the musical “Kiss Me, Kate.” Lois Lane (Lucy Rhoades) loves Bill Calhoun (Harrison Asher Smith). It’s a new relationship with promise. But there are difficulties. Lois has lived a promiscuous life, and her life keeps getting in her way. She’ll always love Bill in her fashion, but her fashion may not suit fidelity. He’s a gambler who won’t own up to his losses and he’s even signed someone else’s name to his debt to gangsters. The name he has signed is Fred Graham (Mike Axtell), his boss and the star of the show they’re both in. Fred is half of the other troubled couple. He’s in love with his co-star Lilli Vanessi (Meredith Lustig), who is his ex-wife, but she isn’t interested in him. She has a new lover, an army general who threatens to keep her protected and in shape. Part of the difficulty in all this is that the general and Fred have both had affairs with Lois Lane. Oy!

The Mac-Haydn is currently running this classic Cole Porter musical in Chatham, New York, and it’s a very colorful, very dancey show in which each of the four principals has moments where they shine bright, but never as bright as two able gangsters, come to collect that debt. Remember the debt? Well, once and for all, it’s gotten too darn hot.

Meredith Lustig, Mike Axtell. Photo by Ann Kielbasa.

The comedy in this musical comedy is broad and accessible; the drama is Shakespearean as the company plays the first out-of-town performance of a musical version of Will Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The show marks Lilli’s return to the stage after a career in motion pictures, and Fred needs the success it will bring him as a Broadway director and star. All of the principals have their motivations, and director Erin Spears Ledford has used those needs subliminally to make the show a more dynamic examination of love’s complications when other needs are paramount. It works. These well-defined characters live out their conflicts, both external and internal, on the Mac-Haydn stage and stop the show with their songs while they do it. All four actors perform their special material extremely well and that keeps the familiar songs inside the show where they belong. They never become vocal showcases for the performers; they are always inside the characters singing them.

Lustig’s classically trained voice sets off her ballads well and gives her that extra oomph she uses to make “Wunderbar” and “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” into extraordinary moments. Axtell sings the difficult character list songs with a simplicity that seems next to impossible. His Petruchio is softer than many actors before him, but this works for his Fred. Together their different voices combine beautifully.

Others in the company who add to the show’s success are Nina Laing as Hattie, Jared Martin as Paul, and Jordan Bunshaft and Jonah Hale as 1st and 2nd Man, those little gangsters who stop the show more than once with their comedy song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

Technically the company has put together a beautiful show. Bryan Knowlton’s complicated choreography is delightful. Music Director Emily Croome and her six musicians do well by Porter’s music. Daniel Hewson delivers excellent 1940’s costumes. Andrew Gmoser has provided excellent lighting design work as usual. Caitlin Maxwell’s hair design is perfectly period as well.

This is one of those shows you shouldn’t miss in spite of my one objection to a rewrite. “Kate” sings “I am ashamed that PEOPLE are so simple” which alters the message of Shakespeare’s play and makes this show into a political statement about today. It literally has something for everybody: music, story, dialogue that takes you by storm, dancing that leaves you breathless. The company is as strong as the principals. It is another triumph for the Mac-Haydn.

“Kiss Me, Kate” plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 N.Y. Rte. 203, Chatham, N.Y., through July 31. For information and tickets call 518 392-9292 or go to their website.