The Hills Musical Company have a long and proud tradition of producing quality shows that began back in 1973, with few repeats. Wind the clock forward fifty years, and they are reprising Kiss Me, Kate, which was their very first show. There is much to like about this reprise, although the sixty-five-year-old show (first performed in 1948) is beginning to show signs of fatigue. Some of the production numbers, at least to this reviewer, seem a little superfluous, such as “We Sing of Love”.
Like many of its vintage, Kiss Me, Kate has big (long?) dance numbers that have little to do with the essence of the story line and appear to be ‘tacked on’ as if to provide a vehicle for the chorus line or a prominent ‘triple threat’ to strut their stuff. ‘Too Darn Hot’, the opening number to Act 2, is such an example, but HMC nailed it with the focus squarely on the hugely impressive acting, singing and dancing talents of Mark Stefanoff. He maintained a high standard of dance elegance, style and precision that set the standard for the rest of the ensemble. For the most part, they made the grade.
Kiss Me, Kate is a play within a play. It is about a company that is mounting a musical version of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, but the two leading players – Fred Graham (performed by Daniel Hamilton) and Lilli Vanessi (Claire McEvoy) – were once married but are still fighting. Their conflict carries over to the stage and their characterisations of Petruchio and Katherine are given some extra spice! Bill Calhoun (nicely played by Kristian Latella) is a member of the company, but he is also gambler and runs up some large debts that he tries to pass off to Graham, who is also the show’s director and producer. Graham is soon importuned by two gangsters wanting the debt repaid. Graham disavows any knowledge of the debt, but soon realizes that he can turn this situation to his advantage and use the gangsters to keep Vanessi from quitting the show. Michael Butler and Richard Greig played the gangsters, and they almost steal the show on several occasions with their excellent comedy routines. The overall story line is all plausible, very silly, and very funny.
With music and lyrics by Cole Porter, the song list includes very popular and well know numbers like “Wunderbar”, “I Hate Men”, “Too Darn Hot”, and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, but every song and musical interlude is a toe-tapper and leaves earworms to deal with long after the show is over. HMC’s production is musically excellent. Ben Stefanoff’s orchestra is first rate, with tuneful, precise and skilled playing throughout. Stefanoff sets appropriate tempos and dynamic balance, and the pace and verve never flags. Singers are all amplified, and Jayden Gladigau’s sound design and operation is excellent, perhaps with the exception that Madi Grey in the role of Lois Lane was over-amplified in her fun performance of “Why Can’t You Behave”.
Vanessa Redmond’s lively choreography is also a highlight of the production. The routines are pitched at just the right level of complexity for the various dancers, and, importantly, suit the style of the music. There is always something of interest to look at and to keep one’s fingers tapping. The choreography for many of the principals’ songs was impressive, and well executed. Daniel Hamilton’s singing and dancing in general, and especially in “Where is the Life That I Led”, always added a strong sense of professionalism to the show. Jethro Pidd’s fight direction was superb in the tussle scene between Petruchio and Katherine, with Hamilton and McEvoy wowing the audience with their vigorous and realistic antics.
The set design (not credited in the program) was simple but very effective, with a raised mezzanine area that provided two adjoining see-through dressing rooms for Graham and Vanessi as the focal point. From time-to-time large curtains were draped in front of mezzanine on which were painted scenes to transform the setting to diverse places. There was even a sense of theatre as the intrepid stage crew came on stage to erect the temperamental backdrops! Costuming by Anna Grossner and Marie Dineen is also commendable, with attention to the style of the 1950s, and excellent Elizabethan-style garments for the play-within-the-play. Scott Lorien’s empathetic lighting did the rest.
HMC’s production is a fine example of a strong and coherent ensemble, with quality principals to carry the heavy lifting. Daniel Hamilton and Claire McEvoy are just excellent.