LOGAN — Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, in part, by staging Kiss Me, Kate in the Ellen Eccles Theatre. This relatively well-known festival is often compared to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and it is always able to bring in high-quality performers from around the country. Their recent effort with Kiss Me, Kate showcases these visiting professionals, yet still leaves something to be desired in the overall direction and unity of the show.
The show started out strong. There was a live pit orchestra led by Barbara Day Turner that sounded great. The set, designed to look like the off stage area of a small Baltimore theatre, looked fantastic. Set designer Robert Little did an excellent job providing multiple playing areas for the actors while still managing to create something beautiful. The lighting, designed by Chad Bonaker, was dynamic. It provided a wonderful sense of being in a dank little theater, yet never at the expense of visibility. The show looked great.
The actors entered the first scene with purpose and excitement, and the opening number “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” sounded great. Director and choreographer, Maggie L. Harrer, made sure to have plenty of business happening on stage with small groups of characters practicing and rehearsing for the play-within-the-play. There was always somewhere to look and something interesting to see. This stage business blended well with the choreography of the song, which was excellent throughout the show. It was well designed and, though there were a few missteps, the actors were able to keep up. Though after the opening numbe,r things started to slip a little.
The acting in the show fairly well done overall. Kyle Pfortmiller, who played Fred/Petruchio, had an amazing voice. Pfortmiller listed the Metropolitan Opera as one of his other venues, and it’s easy to see why. He had a very operatic style with a very resonate sound and a heavy vibrato. His reprise of “So in Love” was beautiful and he was able to really flex his vocal muscles. I also loved his performance of “Where Is the Life that Late I Led?” which not only sounded great, but was also a highlight of the night as far as acting goes. Pfortmiller had great comedic timing and made some excellent choices in his presentation of certain punch-lines. He really commanded the stage well.
Playing across from Petruchio in the titular role of Kate/Lilli was the beautiful Vanessa Ballam. Like her co-star, Ballam had an incredible voice that also leaned toward the operatic style with heavy vibrato. Her rendition of “So in Love” was lovely, and her vocal acrobatics in “I Hate Men” were flat out impressive. Her portrayal of the Lilli was great to see as she descended into the madness of the production that she had been forced into. I would say that of all the cast members, she was the best at taking the events of the offstage world and using them as motivation in for her actions in the onstage world.
However, I do feel that there was something lacking in the relationship between Fred and Lilli. There seemed to be a missing connection that should have been the motivation for Lilli’s transformation at the end of the show. The actors did a fine job in their individual roles, but they didn’t really seem to work through each other, and it made us wonder why they had suddenly fallen in love again.
The most believable relationship of the show was that of Lois/Bianca (Siobhan Doherty) and Bill/Lucentio (Ben Houghton). I feel that Houghton had the best performance of the evening because he was able to create a really nuanced character that garnered the sympathy of the audience. Doherty’s character, though a little more one-dimensional due to the nature of the script, was still engaging and fun to watch. Together, they were able to tell a moving story of a conflicted love. Both actors had great voices, though there was a difference in style from the two leads, as they went with a more Broadway influenced sound. The poignant trading off of “Why Can’t You Behave?” was a great moment that really helped the audience to connect with the two imperfect lovers. And one of the best songs of the evening had to be “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” It was fun to watch and these two did a great job along with Kevin Nakatani and Alex Larson.
Finally, there was the wonderful performance of the Gangsters (Lee Daily and Daniel Quintana). These two had the benefit of having probably the best written roles in the show. The comedy was there and, for the most part, they were able to find it. They especially did well at finding little moments of physical comedy in the second act. Usually all it would take was a small reaction or a look at one of the characters and the gangsters would get a well-deserved laugh. And of course, there was the delightful conclusion to their characters, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Daily and Quintana were able to really sell their characters and should be commended for a job well done.
In light of all the positive notes, there was still something missing in this show, and I think it came down to a lack of unity and structure. This manifested itself in many of the actors trying to “act in a vacuum” rather than really working through each other, as well as some confusion as to what the director wanted the show to be. There were moments of “creative censoring” in which Lilli calls Fred an inappropriate name, but just before she finishes the word, someone will cough, sing a high note, etc. Yet at the same time, there were a number of things added—usually gestures—that were sexual in nature. It was almost as if they wanted to be family friendly, but not too much. There was also some confusion in whether the performance wanted to be an opera or musical. There can be a fine line between the two, but the styles are very different, and at times the show would switch between the two, rather than just being either an opera or a musical.
The direction also suffered in the structure of the play and the songs. There really wasn’t much of a rise and fall in the energy of the show. It lacked a distinct climax and dragged in many scenes. There is a lot of repetition in the script and in Cole Porter‘s music (think of the verses of camp songs: structurally identical with only slight variation in the words), and the director’s challenge then becomes to make each verse different from the one before. As a whole, I don’t feel like this happened. The songs seemed to go on and on, and some directorial choices made them seem even longer. For example, in “Always True to You in My Fashion,” Harrer had Doherty leave the stage twice for no apparent reason. Breaking the song up into three segments like this made no sense and drew attention to how long the song had been going on without any change. The same thing happened during “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” which fared a little better due to the nature of the characters who performed the song. It was almost like the characters exited, but wanted to do it again, just a little bigger this time, but this choice really wasn’t emphasized.
Considering everything, this is a tough show to recommend, but a tough show not to recommend. It’s poorly paced, but there’s some great talent. It’s kind of dead at times, but it’s great to look at and listen to. Given the opportunity, I would watch it again, but I would get the cheapest seats possible, because it’s not one that I would pay full price for.