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Theater Review: 'Kiss Me, Kate' at UCLA's Freud Playhouse

May 12, 2011 | 12:58 pm

Kissmekate “It’s entertaining, vivacious and calculated to appeal to the discriminating theatergoer.” So declares one of the thugs who invade the leading man’s dressing room to collect on a gambling debt during a performance of “The Taming of the Shrew,” the play-within-the play in “Kiss Me, Kate.” 

I could use the same line to describe Reprise Theatre Company's revival of the musical, by Cole Porter, William Shakespeare, and Sam and Bella Spewack, which opened Wednesday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. Except that critique is too subdued to convey the nonstop delights of this production. 

Unless of course, you have something against Porter. Maybe you hate being delighted every 10 seconds by lines such as “If she says your behavior is heinous, kick her right in the Coriolanus” (from the frisky “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” sung by those same thugs after their transformation into amateur dramaturgs).

You might take exception to memorable tunes (almost every song — “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Too Darn Hot” — is independently famous), peppery battle-of-the-sexes banter, extreme codpieces, great voices, and performances that combine serious talent and a sense of humor in equal measure. Does dazzling choreography annoy you? Fine. Stay home.

Just keep in mind that while you’re sitting around, stars are being born in Westwood. Director Michael Michetti, musical director Michael Paternostro, choreographer Lee Martino: Nice.

If forced at gunpoint to pick a winner among the four leads, I’d have to go with Lesli Margherita. In her dual roles as Katherine Minola (a.k.a. Kate the shrew), and diva Lilli Vanessi, she commands an expressive range, from lovelorn to bawdy. Her comic scenes, in which she quivers, snarls and yowls with a throaty rage that contrasts deliciously with her small frame and refined beauty, are especially captivating. Even the bounce of her hair as she huffs offstage has personality.

Brushshakespeare But Tom Hewitt is a close second. As impresario and leading man Fred Graham he’s wonderfully hammy, and he makes Petruchio, who’s really hard to like on the page, a feckless softy hiding behind his ridiculous bluster. The vigorous slaps and spankings Graham and his costar exchange, both on- and offstage, sometimes creep audiences out, but here they’re just funny, “Three Stooges” instead of domestic abuse. 

I came to like the luminous Meg Gillentine as trampy ingénue Lois Lane/smarmy Bianca more and more as the evening progressed. (One of the odd pleasures of this production is that it gets better as it goes.) Her ribald, zesty rendition of “Always True to You (In My Fashion)” completely won me over. Similarly, I wasn’t sold on Seán Martin Hingston as Lucentio/ne’er-do-well hoofer Bill Calhoun until Act II, when he pulled out a jaw-dropping Gene Kelly-esque dance solo.

I could go on. But you need to stop reading and buy tickets. “Kiss Me, Kate” will be playing through May 22 -- unless Reprise can find a way to extend it.

-- Margaret Gray

“Kiss Me, Kate.” Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 22. $70-$75. (310) 825-2101 or Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Photos: Top, Lesli Margherita and Tom Hewitt as Kate and Petruchio in Reprise's "Kiss Me, Kate.' Above, Herschel Sparberg and Jay Brian Winnick as the thugs trying to collect a gambling debt. Credit: Ed Krieger.