Having had the pleasure of seeing a few productions of the Dramateurs at The Barn, I know one thing…they know how to cast. Having one or two cast members in principal (or even non-principal roles, in some cases) who are miscast can be a disaster. The Dramateurs time and time again put together a very talented cast with some of the best actors in the Philadelphia area. This continues to be the case in their latest production, KISS ME, KATE.
Directed by Dru Ullery, this production, to me, was so successful because of the choices made by Ullery and the actors. I, at first, was surprised by the simple, almost flimsy sets, until I realized where Ullery was going. KISS ME, KATE is a play within a play, so sets need to be moved quickly. Sometimes sets are changed as the actors are speaking, which would be an absolute no-no in most arenas, but not here. It works because many of the scenes take place backstage at a play. Therefore, cast members, scenery, and props can be left in full-view of the audience, as it doesn’t matter if they can be seen. Sometimes the curtain is left slightly open, so that the audience can see the cast carrying scenery and walking back and forth.
KISS ME, KATE opens with the cast preparing for opening night in “Another Op’nin Another Show”, showcasing Hattie (Beth Eustis). This number has a lot of energy and is really one of the numbers that KISS ME, KATE is known for. We are then introduced to the four leads in the next few scenes, Mark Ayers (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio), Margo Weishar O’Moore (Lois Lane/Bianca Minola), Renee V. Schulz (Lilli/Kate), and Steve Schulz (Fred/Petruchio). I have said before that KISS ME, KATE is only as strong as its four leads. What a coup it is for the Dramateurs to have these four leading the production.
Team Schulz…married in real-life…are absolutely wonderful, especially in the beautiful “Wunderbar”. Both realizing that it is the anniversary of their divorce, the audience can see them beginning to fall in love again in Porter’s song. Renee Schulz is a gift to the stage. She has a beautifully melodic, full, rich voice which just fills the barn. Her Kate is a diva when she needs to be, but can also be a gentle, heartwarming soul. I could listen to her sing all day. Steve Schulz is completely believable as a pompous Shakespearean actor, as he is trying with all his might to get Taming of the Shrew off the ground. I could see him in Hamlet next to Barrymore. His slicked back hair adds to his showmanship of Fred/Petruchio. Seeing him react to Harrison Howell (Paul Bigas) and Lilli calling each other “Pookie” in “From This Moment On” is a lesson in reactive acting. However, nothing is more heartbreaking than hearing him sing “So In Love” (Reprise) when his Lilli leaves.
Ayers and O’Moore bring joy to their parts. I have seen Ayers in other roles, and he is simply wonderful in every one. He always seems to bring a sense of mischief to his roles…letting the audience “in on the joke”. Watch him wink at a certain part in Act Two. It takes guts to do a cartwheel in black spandex tights, but Ayers knows no bounds. O’Moore has a lovely melodic voice, especially heard in “Always True to You in My Fashion”.
Scott Coonradt and Brian Schwartz deserve special mention for their portrayal of the Gangsters trying to keep Lilli in the show. Nothing is funnier than when they get a taste of “showbiz” in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. They will not leave the stage, coming back for three reprisals. I have seen this show in other venues dreading this part, because it can be a long, drawn-out process. This is the first time I have actually wanted them to come back on stage. They portray foolish, hammish goons very well (Yes, that is a compliment, Scott and Brian!).
Again, this show comes down to the director’s choices, and they are all the right ones. From Gremio (Carey Rumpf) and Hortensio (Eric James Thompson) not being able to keep up with their signs in “We Open in Venice”, to Kate pushing all of the men down in “I Hate Men”, to Petruchio putting roses in Kate’s mouth as she is about to say a bad word, to cast members popping out of doors as Coonradt and Schwartz sing, to the goon flag-waving in “From This Moment On”, this was the funniest production I have seen in a long time. This all comes down to a cast that works extremely well together, like they have been working together forever. They seem like they are having so much fun, which makes the audience want to come along for the ride. This is pure joy in musical theater.
KISS ME, KATE
Book by Sam and Bella Spewack
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Directed by Dru Ullery
August 26-September 10, 2011 (Editor’s note: per the Dramateurs’ website, Saturday 8/28 and Sunday 8/28 cancelled due to Hurricane Irene)
The Dramateurs, Inc.
at The Barn Playhouse
1600 Christopher St
Jeffersonville, PA 19403