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Ragusa, McGowan make BPO’s ‘Kate’ great

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has given us some memorable experiences this season. The Mozart Requiem. Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony.

Saturday’s production of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate,” though, brought a moment that ranks right up there as one of the greats.

That was when Michele Ragusa, in the middle of the hilarious song “I Hate Men,” leapt up on the podium and lunged at Associate Conductor Matthew Kraemer. “I hate men!” she sang, grabbing him. To say she sang the song is putting it mildly. She hissed it and spat it. She hurled the song at the handsome, affable, blameless Kraemer. And then – and then! – she spanked him, a big thwack, right on the fanny.

Ha-ha! Who will ever forget that?

Ragusa was the heart and soul of the production. Directed by James Brennan, it was the latest in an enjoyable line of semi-staged musicals the BPO has been presenting at the rate of about one a year.

Always a delight, this homegrown Broadway star outdid herself in the dual part of Lilli Vanessi, the actress playing Katherine, the shrew in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Your eyes shot to her whenever she was on stage. She was a walking, seething firecracker. Her voice was a marvel. How she could go from the guttural ravings of “I Hate Men” to the clear soprano high notes of “So In Love,” I will never know. Who would guess it would be physically possible?

Mike McGowan, co-starring as Fred Graham/Petruchio, matched her passion. It was a thrill to hear him declaim those famous lines: “Why, there’s a wench! Come on and kiss me, Kate!” They have co-starred in the show before and have a good chemistry.

The show revolved around these two, in addition to two other people of great ability – namely, William Shakespeare and Cole Porter. “Kiss Me Kate” gains so much life from Shakespeare’s earthy humor. A lot of the best jokes come directly from him, and the songs get you in that peculiar Cole Porter way. They are oddly bawdy and bittersweet, sophisticated and moving.

Falling in behind the leads was a lot of other fine talent. Jenn Stafford, as Bianca, seemed to be saluting Bernadette Peters with her kewpie-doll delivery, but she had enough individuality to carry it off. The silly “Tom, Dick or Harry,” a number I love, got a great treatment with dancing and all kinds of funny shtick. Stafford also sang a beautiful “Why Can’t You Behave,” which has some of Porter’s best writing. Her voice is clear and carries well.

Patrick Riviere and David Bondrow were a hit as Gangster 1 and Gangster 2. It’s rare that bad guys don’t bog a show down. The naughty “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” was so cute that it won some of the heartiest applause of the night.

A couple of things could have made the good even better. The Philharmonic’s abridged version may have been too abridged, because at the end, it was unclear what exactly had changed Katherine’s mind and made everything turn out OK.

Also, when Kraemer was spanked, I made the mistake of glancing at the orchestra. Hardly anyone was reacting at all. Musicians, look alive! A crazy woman has just jumped up and grabbed your conductor. You should be reeling!

Quibbles aside, though, that was still a great moment.

A great show.