‘Kiss Me, Kate’ Leads Celebrate Mothers and Latin American Heritage
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Clockwise from left: Rána Roman’s mom, Sara Roman, Andrew Varela’s mom, Hilda Alvarez, Andrew Varela in costume for his role as Petruchio and Rána Roman in costume for her role as Kate in Skylight Music Theatre's "Kiss Me, Kate." Photo by Ross Zentner.
For accomplished performers Andrew Varela and Rána Roman, their mothers knew from an early age they were destined for a life on stage.
When Andrew’s mom, Hilda Alvarez, took him to get studio portraits as a baby, he immediately started working the room. When the photographers hammed it up to get a reaction from him, baby Andrew started making funny faces and goofy noises right back.
“He had them rolling in the aisles,” Alvarez says. “I just went, ‘we have a performer in the family!’”
When Rána was 7 years old, she and her brothers, Anthony and David Roman, were in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream together at the Pabst Theater. After the last performance, Rána’s parents pulled up to the backstage door with the car fully packed, grabbed the kids, and embarked on a long drive to Florida for a family vacation.
“Growing up I heard about these plays through school and through the books, but never had the opportunity to go see them,” says Sara Roman, Rána’s mom. “To see these shows that I knew about or read in high school, especially the Shakespeare stuff, has always been a thrill.”
Andrew and Rána star opposite each other in Skylight Music Theatre’s upcoming production of Kiss Me, Kate as Fred Graham/Petruchio and Lilli Vanessi/Katherine. With music and lyrics by Cole Porter and book by Sam and Bella Spewack, the show follows divorced Broadway performers Fred and Lilli as they reunite for a new musical version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
The two leads will honor their mothers and Latin American heritages through a creative twist on Kiss Me, Kate. Andrew’s mom Hilda came to America from Cuba when she was 20 years old to escape Fidel Castro and build a better life for her children, while Rána’s mom Sara came to America from Puerto Rico with her family when she was just 5 years old.
Rána Roman and her mom Sara Roman. Photo by Ross Zentner.
Although director Ray Jivoff, marking his final show as Skylight artistic director with Kiss Me, Kate, didn’t deliberately cast two performers with Latin American backgrounds in the leading roles, he was delighted with how it ended up and wanted to accentuate it.
“Andrew and I had the discussion that it should be limited to when they are being themselves, not when they are doing Taming of the Shrew,” Rána explains. “Our personalities are so explosive as Lilli and Fred that it felt like the right time. What we sort of established is that (our characters) anglicized their names, which definitely would have been necessary during that time in order to be seen as more castable.”
Rána says that the characters throw their real names at each other during an argument, along with expletives in Spanish instead of English.
“It doesn’t change the show very much at all, but it does change the way that we yell at each other,” Andrew says with a laugh. “Anyone that has a Latin background knows it always shows up during the yelling. We sort of embraced that and to my knowledge it has never been done before.”
Rána Roman as Lilli Vanessi/Katharine and Andrew Varela as Fred Graham/Petruchio. Photo by Ross Zentner.
Kiss Me, Kate was inspired by feuding husband-and-wife actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne during their 1935 production of The Taming of the Shrew. Lunt was a Wisconsin native and together the couple owned Ten Chimneys in Gennesee Depot, which is now open to the public as a house museum with a mission to serve the arts.
Kiss Me, Kate won the first Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949 and has received multiple revivals since. The 1999 revision focused on making Lilli and Fred equals, intellectually and professionally, and removing the belittling and misogyny from the first script.
“I walked out at the end of the day that we staged our first big fight feeling baller,” Rána says. “(Lilli) is really strong and I’m looking forward to people getting to experience that.”
Much like her daughter, Sara is also a singer. When her kids were growing up, Sara worked full time in various administrative assistant roles and played pop, rock, R&B and Motown shows on the weekends.
“Back then my dream was to be a performer some day, in a big way,” Sara says. “When I got to do it at all, I just felt lucky that I was good enough.”
Sara currently sings with Hallelujah Singers, a choir she has been with for 25 years. The group travels to prisons, nursing homes and churches to offer joy and hope through music.
Hilda heard her son sing for the first time when he was 14 in his junior high’s musical of H.M.S. Pinafore as Captain Corcoran.
Andrew Varela and his mom Hilda Alvarez. Photo by Ross Zentner.
“That beautiful voice came out and I couldn’t stop crying,” Hilda says. “I’ve been crying ever since.”
Hilda has been one of Andrew’s most enthusiastic supporters throughout the years, seeing her son play Javert in the 25th anniversary tour of Les Misérables 60 times while working as an usher.
“She just can’t get enough,” Andrew jokes.
Sara shares a similar pride in her talented daughter.
“I’m so proud because she’s not only good enough, she is beyond good enough,” Sara says. “She’s up there with the best of them. The city is better off with someone like her. Not only for her talent, but her heart. There are not many like her with her heart.”
“Kiss Me, Kate,” presented by Skylight Music Theatre, runs May 17 - June 16, at the Broadway Theatre Center. For tickets, visit skylightmusictheatre.org or call the box office at 414-291-7800.