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A passionate, seductive 'Kiss' Playhouse production mostly energetic but uneven

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:47 PM

HURON - You might want to frequently fan yourself while witnessing the searing Huron Playhouse production of "Kiss Me Kate," which opened Tuesday night to kick off the season.

This rousing Cole Porter musical is already a blazing one, with one of the songs titled "Too Darn Hot." The battle of the sexes rages on-stage and off in the multi-Tony Award winning "Kate."

Adding to the heat in this respectable but uneven production comes courtesy of actress Shaina Vencel. She seethes with anger against men as Katharine the namesake of this musical-within-a-musical about a theater troupe staging a musical version of William Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew."

The shrew is Katharine, and as played by Vencel, it will take a lot more than an on-stage spanking to reign her in. Katharine vigorously punches, trips, lunges and sneers at any male in her sight.

"The Taming of the Shrew" concerns two daughters, Bianca and Katharine. Bianca's father forbids her to marry until Katharine finds a husband. The problem is that may never occur since the shrew tells us in so many terms she "hates men."

Enter Petruchio, played with dashing charm by John Glann. A clash of opposing agendas ensues: Katharine wants nothing to do with men, while the debonair womanizer Petruchio has arrived in town with the goal of marrying.

In one scene, Katharine is so unruly, Petruchio threatens to spank her on-stage and does. The madness spills offstage, as fictional actress Lillli Vanessi (who plays Katharine) accuses Fred Graham, the actor playing Petruchio, of actually striking her on-stage.

Life really does imitate art, as Porter and scriptwriters Bella and Samuel Spewack illustrate: Graham and Vanessi are a real-life divorced couple who are fighting just like their onstage characters.

Vanessi heats up the stage with her anger both as Katharine and Vanessi, while Graham raises the temperature as well, spewing sarcasm.

I've seen Glann in a couple productions now, and have become impressed with his ability to naturally convey warmth and charm. Glann showed me his versatility during Tuesday night's performance: He nicely captured Graham's smug attitude, sarcasm dripping from his voice and registering on his face.

Glann was equally up to the task at conveying Petruchio's urbane nature. Glann's rich, cultured baritone is literally and figuratively music to my ears. It is a nice warm feeling, threatening to further boil the proceedings.

Oh, and let us not forget the song "Too Darn Hot," sung with fevered sexual passion by Playhouse newcomer Thomas Brazzle. Sarah Ittner is deliciously sexy as blonde airhead Lois Lane, an actress in the fictional troupe. Mitchell A. Koory exudes a boyish, "aw shucks" demeanor as Bill Calhoun, her boyfriend.

But not all is smokin' in this production.

"Why Can't You Behave?", sung by Lois and Bill, is supposed to establish a mood of letdown. Calhoun is a chronic gambler and Lane expresses her disappointment that her boyfriend threw away his money yet again. This is one time for Ittner not to act sexy, yet she does just that here, instead of acting downtrodden.

A bigger failure is the show's opening number "Another Op'nin', Another Show." The cast lethargically performs this showstopper, as though this production were, well, just "Another Show."

To make things worse, the orchestra plays a part of the staged overture in between verses of this song, making it a disorganized opening mess.

Far from a mess, "Kiss Me Kate" is considered Porter's best musical. The famed composer and lyricist vividly creates a variety of moods, from the toe-tappin' "We Open in Venice" and "Another Op'nin' to the sultry "Too Darn Hot," and the playful "Always True to You in My Fashion."

The cast members' rendition of "Venice" was a lot livelier than "Another Op'nin," while Ittner is appropriately coy in "Always True"

Porter doesn't make the mistake of setting all of Shakespeare's words to music (some of us have enough trouble deciphering the Bard's verse when spoken).

For those of you with a fear of Shakespeare, his words are included in the musical, but you do not have to understand every word of the Bard. There's physical comedy aplenty here, and if you wish, you can "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" as the show's villains sing.

The gangsters, played by Aaron Mann and Blane Pressler, give understated and cool performances.

After all, those fans you should bring to the theater might not be enough.

Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at krause@goreflector.com. IF YOU GO

WHAT: "Kiss Me Kate."

WHEN: 8 p.m. Through Saturday

WHERE: McCormick School on Ohio Street, Huron

HOW MUCH: Adults, $12, students/senior citizens $11, children under 12 $8, groups of 15 or more, $10 and season passes cost $40. Call (419) 433-4744.

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