Review: “Kiss Me, Kate”

Just 24 hours prior to opening night of “Kiss Me, Kate,” the Spotlight Players were forced to abruptly end their dress rehearsal due to a tornado warning in the area. The extreme elements outside forced the group to perform the final three scenes on Thursday night without one last rehearsal to work out the kinks. Judging by the performance on opening night, however, there were very few kinks to be worked out, if any at all.

The Spotlight Players’ second mainstage of the year, “Kiss Me, Kate,” is the story of jilted lovers Fred Graham (senior Sean Gundersen) and Lilli Vanessi (freshman Esther Davis). The duo star in the musical “Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare — yes, it is a musical within musical — that is produced and directed by Graham himself. The twist is that Graham and Vanessi are a divorced couple whose dysfunctional relationship ultimately ends in a dysfunctional show.

“Kiss Me, Kate” is a comedic goldmine with allusions, pop-culture references, innuendos, and ironic situations aplenty. Much of the comedy stems from the mobster duo of junior Charlie Grant and freshman Tristan Ratterman, who serve as comic relief for those rare, serious moments within the musical. Their performance of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” was side-splitting, but they weren’t the only ones to take part in the hilarity. Every character had his or her’s fair share of one-liners that, while teetered on overkill, always had you laughing.

The choreography was also a sight to behold. The large dance numbers almost made me forget this was a high school production, as the performers moved about the stage with ease and confidence. My personal favorite was “Tom, Dick or Harry,” which featured comical tap dancing that was paired with some exceptional music from the pit — they were fine all night and found their groove towards the end of act one — and top-notch singing from all performers on stage. It was hard not to tap your foot to the rhythm as it all came together like a Dairy Queen Blizzard; i.e. very damn good.

What made the musical so special wasn’t the surplus of hysterical moments or the brilliantly executed choreography, it was the individual performances. Junior John Emery played the cool, bad guy persona of Bill Calhoun to a tee, making the character wrongfully likable. Freshman Emily Turner, who stars as Lois Lane (Calhoun’s love interest,) puts in an impressive vocal performance for a youngster, highlighted by “Always True to You in My Fashion.” The two’s chemistry on stage made every moment they were on stage together a treat.

Gundersen continues his streak of charismatic performances, this time coupled with a strong vocal presence. The raw emotion in his voice during his performance of “Where Is The Life That Late I Led,” among his other musical numbers, is unlike anything I’ve heard during a high school musical. The most impressive performance of them all, however, goes to Davis. Only a freshman, Davis puts in a very mature and poised performance as Vanessi. Her beautiful vocals and convincing acting made it appear as if she had been doing this for years.

It’s kind of ironic; a musical that stresses male dominance and contains so much sexist commentary was stolen by the female lead. But in reality, Davis’ performance was symbolic of the musical as a whole. From the ensemble to those who worked on the set, this was yet another job well done by the Spotlight Players and a brilliant way for the seniors of the group to go out. With just two performances remaining, you’d be a fool not to see this show.