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‘Take Me Out,’ the Revival Strikes Deep With Bravura Performances by an All-Star Cast

The cast of Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

Once again, twenty years later, Take Me Out, the revival for the love of baseball running at 2nd Stage, strikes a pacing home run with bravura performances by Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mason Marzac), Jesse Williams (Darren Lemming), and Brandon J. Dirden (Davey Battle). Richard Greenberg’s dialogue in the minds, mouths and hearts of the cast never seems more acute, dazzling and dangerous in this “piping time” of Red State/Blue State, as he pumps up the themes of machismo, homophobia, religious bias, gender bias, racism, identity conflicts with color blindness, celebrity privilege, corporate hypocrisy and much more. The second act really takes off, soaring into flight after a perhaps too long-winded first act, whose speeches may have been slimmed a bit to make them even more trenchant and viable.

(L to R): Jesse Williams, Ken Marks in Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

There is no theme that Greenberg doesn’t touch upon which is current and heartbreaking, except #metoo. That is refreshing because one’s personal rights vs. accountability to the public good are paramount to all spirits inhabiting various bodies whether male, female, transgender, or other. The importance of human rights, human decency and love are crucial in this play because the incapacity of all the characters to embody these qualities remains one of the focal points.

(L to R): Patrick J. Adams, Jesse Williams in Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

Finally, one does hope that the success of the production will remind all lovers of baseball (the most American of games), that it is the only sport where an active major league player has not come out as gay. As a matter of personal choice and risk, of course, such a decision would be momentous as it becomes for the star of the Empires (think Yankees), Darren Lemming, superbly played by Jesse Williams.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson in Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

Scott Ellis’ direction is spare and thematically charged. Importantly, “sound” (thanks to Bray Poor, responsible for sound design), heightens the excitement. The emphasis is on the crack of the ball on the bat and the cheering fans. The lighting (Kenneth Posner), is spare. Florescent thin blue lines, representing team colors, square off the space to suggest the players’ emotional confinement. The staging elements rightly place front and center the social dynamic, arc of development and relationships between and among the players.

Initially, team camaraderie is thrown into disarray by Darren Lemming, who drips gold from his pores and walks upright in perfection but admits to being gay. His proclamation sends ripples of “shock and awe” through his envious teammates, who worship Lemming’s “divinity,” his steely cool demeanor and very, very fat salary,

The cast of Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

We find his teammates response to be humorous. In order not to appear femme they restrict all their male “locker-room” behaviors because they don’t want to “entice” Darren into thinking they are his sexual “kin.” Only Kippy, his self-appointed buddy and narrator who tells part of the story (the fine Patrick J. Adams), chides him for not alerting anyone before his press announcement. Afterward, Kippy humorously teases his friend that the team lionizes who he is and would love to “be him” or “be with him,” on the down low, except that he is now very public. And that would make them very public. So they must keep their distance. Darren is annoyed at this new leprosy which he never experienced or thought he would experience because he is who he is, the team’s greatest.

(L to R): Jesse Williams, Patrick J. Adams in Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

Meanwhile, Darren’s announcement has forced all to confront where they stand with their own sexuality and sensitive male identity, which Kippy suggests reveals latent gay repression, and Darren suggests is the opposite. From the initial conflict, the Empires go through a roller-coaster of events and emotions that Darren didn’t foresee when he blithely walked between the raindrops and dropped the bomb on his team and Major League Baseball, assuming that because he could handle it, they should handle it.

When it comes to his devoutly traditional Christian friend Davey Battle (the always excellent Brandon J. Dirden), Darren has a blind spot. Instead of quietly discussing his sexual orientation with Davey, a misunderstanding ensues when Davey encourages him to be himself and be unafraid.

Michael Oberholtzer and the cast of Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

Where certain Christians are concerned, being gay is another feature of Christ’s love. Darren assumes that especially with his devout Christian friend, Christ’s love means acceptance. Greenberg holds back the mystery of Davey’s and Darren’s conversation about his being gay, revealing its importance at the end of Act II, when the stakes are at an explosive level. When we discover the identity of the individual who overhears their conversation is a witness to “the event,” we are surprised at the superb twist. Immediately, we understand the conversation happened. There is no way the “overhearing witness” would be lying. It is this conversation that becomes the linchpin of uncertainty, a tripwire to set off questions with no easy answers. There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see this wonderful production to find out the importance of the witness to the conversation.

(L to R): Jesse Williams, Brandon J. Dirden in Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

Greenberg covers all his bases with runners in this take down and resurrection of America’s “favorite past-time.” There is personal locker room talk where nude teammates “let it all hang out,” as they shower and face-off against each other, responding to Darren’s announcement and humanizing him because of it. Greenberg’s wit and shimmering edginess work best, revealing his spry characterizations in the banter between Kippy and Darren, and in the growing friendship between Darren and his new financial advisor Mason Marzac, the superbly heartfelt and riotous Jesse Tyler Ferguson. As the consummate outsider who becomes a fan, the character of Mason has the most interesting perspective on baseball, the gay community and the events that happen in real time that result in an unresolved tragedy.

Marzac, meets with cool, collected Darren after the celebrity star outs himself. Ferguson’s Marzac is humorously over the moon about Darren’s courage, his performance and the game. Darren states coming out was not “brave,” unless one thinks something bad will happen, because “God is in baseball,” and Darren is in baseball. And “nothing bad happens to Darren.” This Icarus is flying high. He takes advantage, surreptitiously, smoothly crowing about his stature which outshines his teammates and especially the awe-struck dweeby, unathletic, unbuff Mason.

Brandon J. Dirden in Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

Of course, the conversation carries tremendous irony in hindsight, because like Icarus who gets burned and crashes to the earth, so does Darren. How Greenberg fashions this is surprising and ingenious. Interestingly, not only does Darren take the team with him emotionally and psychically, they are rewarded despite their corrupt Machiavellian machinations to achieve a win. The irony is heavenly. It is Greenberg’s device, savvy and sardonic, which speaks to theme. Sometimes when you win, it’s not a win if your heart breaks and there are no friends or teammates you can share it with because of emotional separation and alienation. So for the team and especially Kippy and Darren, the win becomes a grave loss that no one can ever appreciate, except baseball idolator, Mason.

But I get ahead of myself praising Greenberg’s irony.

Patrick J. Adams in Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

As they discuss Darren’s financial picture, Darren clues Ferguson’s Mason in to the finer points of baseball appreciation, for example to keep “watching” the number coincidences. There’s “a lot of that,” Darren implies as Mason rattles off wondrously, “…the guy who hit sixty-one home runs, to tie the guy who hits sixty-one home runs, in nineteen sixty-one, on his father’s sixty-first birthday.” Mason is ignited by speaking to the amazing and surprisingly gay Darren.

Ferguson shines in his Mason portrayal, as he excitedly waxes over the Americanisms of the game, as pure egalitarian democracy. He emphasizes that everyone has a chance when they get up to bat. But then he states that baseball is more mature than democracy. This comment coupled with the arc of development is an incredible irony considering the team takes in a crackerjack pitcher, Shane Mungitt, who is one of the more florid Red Necks to ever appear on stage. Michael Oberholtzer’s Shane is breathtaking, a stellar, in-the-moment portrayal of a bigot you can actually feel sorry for.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson in Take Me Out (Joan Marcus)

Ferguson’s superbly rendered soliloquy about baseball opens a window into Mason’s kind, perceptive and loving nature. He effusively and humorously describes the requisite home run as a unique moment: the game stops and there is a five minute celebration of cheering time for the fans and the hitter, who rounds the bases like a king, though the ball has long spiraled out of the stadium into the universe. From watching the completely unnecessary round of the bases, Mason says, “I like to believe that something about being human is good. And what’s best about ourselves is manifested about our desire to show respect for one another. For what we can be.”

This is the crux of the play because after this eloquent and high-minded speech, everything falls apart. The winning streak of the Empires, the team relationships, the friendships between Davey and Darren, and between Darren and Kippy implode. And sadly, the once silent, “mind my own business” Shane unravels into a hellish state, careening into the other players with a vengeance that he may not be responsible for, given his upbringing. Thus, not even a winning season saves them from the inner reckoning they have brought upon themselves. If this is America’s favorite past time, it would be better to go back to reading.

Greenberg gives his play’s coda to Mason, who has “evolved” into a baseball aficionado. As such he is brimful of hope, yet ironically perceptive. A tragedy has occurred. However, for him the greater tragedy is that he has to wait a whole half year for the season to begin again. Baseball is that tiny thing that takes one out of the misery of life and makes it worth living, even with its tragedies. In Take Me Out, that is true for the fans. For the players, what occurs is an entirely different and terrible consequence.

Kudos to Scott Ellis’ direction and his shepherding of cast and the creative team. These include Linda Cho (costume design), David Rockwell (scenic design), and others already mentioned. Scott Ellis and the cast have delivered a profoundly humorous and vital, resonant work about a game played throughout our country, revealing that no one, regardless of how we prize sports figures, is worthy of the greatness of the game itself.

For tickets and times go to the website: https://2st.com/shows/take-me-out?gclid=Cj0KCQjwjN-SBhCkARIsACsrBz798inP5l5pUV7hZGFHOj0rWRI1spG27oalp8HyLfnArPnBlPauavsaAkcwEALw_wcB

‘Kiss Me Kate,’ Kelli O’Hara is a Lustrous, Assertive Kate in Roundabout’s 2019 Revival

Kelli O'Hara, 'Kiss Me Kate,' 2019 Roundabout Revival music by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack, directed by Scott Ellis, Warren Carlyle, Paul Gemignani

Kelli O’Hara and the company of ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ 2019 Roundabout Revival music by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack, directed by Scott Ellis, choreography Warren Carlyle, music direction by Paul Gemignani (Joan Marcus)

Keeping in mind the importance of women’s progress during our current retrograde throw-down of conservative political churlishness, Roundabout’s Kiss Me Kate revamps misogyny and turns it on its head in this ingenious 2019 Broadway revival that leaves audiences cheering and wanting more.

Specifically, that is more of the gorgeously orchestrated Cole Porter music/songs interpreted with soulfulness, energy and vibrance by multi-talented artisan-actors; more of Choreographer Warren Carlyle’s physically pyrotechnical, gravity-defying dance numbers with a few finger-snapping, staccato tapping jazz bits slid in-between; more of the stylized old-style musical tenor and atmosphere that relaxes and massages us into a pleasant two hour reverie, especially after a few logical tweaks to enhance plot relevance; just more!

This is an exhilarating production that soars, reaches to the heavens and by the conclusion, sets us back down with the fun of its whimsical, good will and twerking tidbits of political grist in the form of a general and allusions to the Truman/Dewey presidential race. Cast principals and ensemble, good shepherd-director Scott Ellis, and Paul Gemignani’s music direction have all found their synergy together in a delightful meld. The production does not promise to be anything but what it is, entertainment joy with dollops of well-placed wisdom and irony with currency (the joke about guns). Wisely, dare you ask for “anything more” in a time of chaotic political imbroglios? Hardly.

Kiss Me Kate,' 2019 Roundabout Revival, Scott Ellis, Cole Porter, Sam & Bella Spewack

The Company of ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ 2019 Roundabout Revival directed by Scott Ellis, Music by Cole Porter, Book by sam and Bella Spewack (Joan Marcus)

The book has been lightly delivered from its gender awkwardness by Amanda Green’s added material, but the ironic, farce in substance remains. Sam and Bella Spewack’s play within a play structure features the Bard of Avon’s notorious satire of Italian machismo and subversive “femininity” framed by a divorced theatrical couple’s real-life story parallel. Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction when the zany hi-jinks of actress Lilli Vanessi and her ex-husband producer Fred Graham attempt to tame each other’s egos while staging their theater come-backs in a Baltimore production of Taming of the Shrew.

Drawn to each other like moths to flames, they know how to allure and provoke their best and worst aspects in the name of “the show must go on” until it can’t, then does at the point of a gun. In this both Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase find a superb stride together, especially during the reminiscences of their former relationship in “Wunderbar” and the remembrance of love which dies hard for Lilli in “So in Love,” which Kelli O’Hara sings with poignance, grace and open-throated, sonorous glory.

It is one of the high points of O’Hara’s portrayal as Lilli, echoed by the refrain sung by Will Chase’s Fred when Lilli leaves him and the show to marry General Howell (a fine Terence Archie). She claims she wants to end her theater career to be General Howell’s demure, passive hausfrau as he campaigns for Vice-president on the Republican Dewey ticket. However, once a Diva, never a hausfrau!

Kelli O'Hara, Will Chase, 'Kiss Me Kate, 2019 Roundabout Revival, Scott Ellis, Cole Porter, Sam & Bella Spewack

Kelli O’Hara, Will Chase in ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ 2019 Roundabout Revival, directed by Scott Ellis (Joan Marcus)

There are role upheavals¬† and flipped switches. Lilli discovers Fred’s mistress machinations in a misunderstanding which turns into another betrayal of her abiding love for him. But where she may have once played the victim during their divorce, she steps into empowerment during the production of Shrew. And this prompts Lilli to become his equal while giving Fred his comeuppance during a very physical and hysterical tit-for-tat, kick-for-slap sequence as they enact the wooing scene between Katharine and Petruchio in Shrew before an unwitting, live, Baltimore audience. (us)

The ironies of the play within a play structure are just great. For example in the “violent” wooing scene which turns very real between Lilli and Fred, their “in-the-moment” spontaneity with loads of improvisation is an actors’ dream come true. Lilli and Fred are keeping their portrayals of Katharine and Petruchio fresh and alive which helps to make the Baltimore production of Shrew a hit that even thugs enjoy. The New York audience doing double-duty as the 1940s Baltimore audience cracks up being in on the humorous uptake between Lilli and Fred who pummel each other as Kate and Petruchio.

Chase and O’Hara’s acting skills explode causing a LOL laugh riot. The scene is marvelous and deeper than one might imagine for the double-take on reality and acting. O’Hara and Chase act Lilli and Fred, acting Katharine’s and Petruchio’s spontaneous, improvised reactions to each other as they go off script. They must “act” spontaneous and “moment-to-moment” and of course O’Hara and Chase do, manifesting their character’s anger from within, without pushing for laughs. This is exceptional work made to appear “easy.” It is not! Coupled with their unparalleled vocal instruments, their songs together are superb.

Kelli O'Hara, Will Chase, 2019 Roundabout Revival 'Kiss Me Kate,' Cole Porter, Sam & Bella Spewack, Scott Ellis, Paul Gemignani, Warren Carlyle

Kelli O’Hara, Will Chase, 2019 Roundabout Revival ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ music by Cole Porter, Sam and Bella Spewack (book) directed by Scott Ellis (Joan Marcus)

Altogether, the song and dance numbers are fabulous Cole Porter. Act I musical numbers which are standouts include the scenes from Shrew particularly those that take place in The Market Square in Padua. “Tom, Dick, or Harry” is a sexual dance romp with suggestive moves that are hysterically ingenious emphasizing “grinds” on the word “Dick.” Singing and dancing are just super with Stephanie Styles, Corbin Bleu, Will Burton and Rick Faugno. Their use of a bench as a dance prop over which they become airborne, absolutely astounds. Their balletic leaps mirror Olympic- style athleticism. Just gobsmacking choreography which Styles, Bleu, Burton and Faugno sail through. I was exhausted watching them.

Kelli-Lilli-Katharine’s “I Hate Men” resonates as does Will-Fred-Petruchio’s “Were Thine That Special Face.” As Lilli, who portrays Katharine, gradually confronts the mistakes she made with Fred, she expresses this learning in Katharine’s “I Hate Men.” Meanwhile, Fred notes this new Lilli and once more is entranced with her which he evidences through Petruchio’s “Were Thine That Special Face.” Chase and O’Hara reveal how their Shrew roles impact the evolution of Lilli’s and Fred’s characters on a deeper level which will eventually bring them closer by the conclusion. Their development is subtle character change; look for it. Loved it!

Rick Faugno, Will Burton, Stephanie Styles, Corbin Bleu in 'Kiss Me Kate,' 2019 Roundabout Revival, Scott Ellis

(Clockwise from the bottom): Rick Faugno, Will Burton, Stephanie Styles, Corbin Bleu in ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ 2019 Roundabout Revival, directed by Scott Ellis (Joan Marcus)

Meanwhile, the show must go on, but which show? The one in front of the curtain or the more fascinating one behind the curtain? Then, BAM! There is no curtain/separation between the principals acting Shrew and their real lives, a hazard of the theatrical profession. Making “all the world a stage” even sweeps up the thugs (the excellent John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams) who come to collect a gambling debt that Bill Calhoun (the wonderful Corbin Bleu who is triple-threat incredible) pawns off on Fred.

In a clever twist to keep the thugs at bay and Lilli from leaving the production, Fred has them don Shrew costumes and accompany Lilli everywhere on stage in the hope the show will go on and the thugs will take the Box Office in payment for the gambling losses. When they and the entire cast conclude Act I with the rousing and funny “Kiss Me Kate,” (O’Hara’s solo aria and the shooting of piccolo-bird are adorable) they too get in on the act, gun-a-blazing, feathers flying as the curtain falls

Though Act II begins with the incongruous “Too Darn Hot,” (when it is hot, no one wants to move) the dance/song number is so spectacular that the realm of the fantastic takes over. Corbin Bleu leads the dance team and then taps down the house with his unparalleled energy and brilliance. The Porter music is sultry, the acrobatic dance and tap number so sweep up the audience, beauty arrives. It is this ensemble’s highpoint number in the play, among the many sterling numbers. Despite the heat/movement incongruity, the singers/dancers’ investment in strutting their wares with every fiber of their physical and emotional well being, just overwhelms. Sensory enjoyment evaporates one kind of “heat” and supplants it with another, excitement.

Kiss Me Kate, 2019 Roundabout Revival, Scott Ellis, Cole Porter, Sam & Bella Spewack

The company of ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ 2019 Roundabout Revival (Joan Marcus)

In Act II, Fred/Petruchio’s “Where Is the Life That Late I Led” reveals the duality inherent in Fred’s change-over to eventually accept that he loves Lilli and regrets their break-up and her leaving forever. This becomes clear when Fred takes advantage of the General’s stereotyping of women by demeaning Lilli behind her back in a last ditch attempt to keep her near him in the show.

We dislike the General’s misogyny and his referral to the future Mrs. General Howell as “the little woman.” Of course Fred already sees the handwriting on the wall for Lilli’s upcoming disastrous marriage to the General. Indeed, Lilli is her “own person” which the General will force her to reorient to himself as his career will overshadow hers. He, not she, is the star of the country. The scenes between the General and Lilli point up the dichotomy between the theatrical life and the “helpmeet” life the General requires.

ohn Pankow, Will Chase, Lance Coadie Williams, 'Kiss Me Kate,' Scott Ellis, Taming of the Shrew

(L to R): John Pankow, Will Chase, Lance Coadie Williams in ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ directed by Scott Ellis (Joan Marcus)

The fabulous “From This Moment On,” is performed by Lilli and the General with energetic, almost frenetic confidence.¬† Lilli sings with determination that she is leaving the theater to be the wifely ambassador for the General’s campaign. Fred looks on with skepticism. O’Hara’s interpretation belies that she isn’t convinced that marrying the General is the right move, though the General is completely clueless, a harbinger of their relationship. Does she or doesn’t she? You’ll just have to see the production if you are unfamiliar with Kiss Me Kate.

Special mention must be given to the following numbers which were audience favorites: “Bianca” featuring the memorable talents of Corbin Bleu as Bill with the ensemble beautifully supporting him, and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with the erudite thugs played by John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams instructing the Baltimore/NYC audience about what a boon Shakespeare’s works/words/poetry is to impress. Both songs are crowd pleasers, choreographed, staged, performed exceptionally.

The scenic design by David Rockwell featuring the backstage brick wall leading to the dressing rooms, quaint warmly glowing lighting (Donald Holder’s varied Lighting Design is super) and back alley all lead to ready identification with the dancers and actors who become family by the end of the show. The dressing rooms are attractive and functional and the sets for Taming of the Shrew are painted in light pastel whimsy which contrasts with the dark backstage brick alley of Baltimore theater reality. Even the Shrew curtain including the credits designed by producerGraham is well thought out.

Kelli O'Hara, Kiss Me Kate, 2019 Roundabout Revival, Scott Ellis

Kelli O’Hara in ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ 2019 Roundabout Revival, directed by Scott Ellis (Joan Marcus)

There is a savvy alignment with the wittiness of the show, as well as the divergences in the lives of the ensemble, the principals and the fantasies they create as artists. The costumes (Jeff Mahshie) likewise, are gorgeous, appropriate, piquantly colorful, from star dressing gowns to Italian city-state fashions of the wealthy Baptista and friends, and wooing Petruchio. The Hair and Wig Design is no less masterful.

Finally, one number “Always True to You in my Fashion” by Stephanie Styles (with a dumb blonde, Judy Holiday, upper register voice) as Lois Lane, I thought slipped past the gender update. The song “boasts” stereotypical tropes of the gold-digger, the girl with lucre on her mind and in her heart. Lois Lane is an opportunist who makes her way from wealthy men to pursue acting. She has an affair with Fred to land a part in the show and is his occasional plaything that upsets Lilli.

Will Chase, Kiss Me Kate, 2019 Roundabout Revival, Scott Ellis

Will Chase in ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ 2019 Roundabout Revival, directed by Scott Ellis (Joan Marcus)

Lois Lane (the antithesis of Superman’s reporter love interest) finally ends up with Bill Calhoun (Corbin Bleu) who manages to love her despite her roaming ways (“Why Can’t You Behave,” “Bianca.”). Initially, I found this nymphet sex kitten character who sniffs after money, jewels and wealth, rankling. Then I realized that she uses sex to empower herself and the duped men fall weakly for it every time, it seems, except for Bill who’s poor. Even presidents have fallen prey to such clever women and embarrassed themselves. Indeed, she is integral to this revival and is perhaps the longest living female character type in the history of womankind.

This 2019 revival of Kiss Me Kate runs with one intermission and is just “too damn good” to miss, especially if you adore the voices of the principals Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase and the breathtaking dance talent of Corbin Bleu. The updates make sense and are appreciated as is the reaffirmation that farce and the fantastic are good like a medicine. The production runs until 2nd June.

 

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