The newest revival of the classic musical comedy KISS ME KATE is pure delight. Chockablock full with marvelous songs by Cole Porter, it is an exhilarating exemplar of the Golden Age of American musical comedy. What’s more, robustly directed by Scott Ellis, and contemporized subtly, it rises above revivals that have come before.
First performed in 1948 and the winner of the first Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949, KISS ME KATES’s backstage plot revolves around the battle of the sexes between theater diva Lilli Vanessi and her egomaniacal machismo ex-husband Fred Graham who’s directing, producing and starring in a musical version of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”. Fred is still on the hunt for the ladies. Lilli is engaged to a popular US Army General. In “Shrew” Lilli plays Katherine, Fred is Petruchio. They’re arguing antics off-stage mirror the ribald conflict of their characters on stage. Bill Calhoun, whose gambling debts get him in trouble with mobsters, plays Lucentio. His girl, Lois Lane, whose amorous interests go beyond Bill, plays Bianca. Jealousies erupt, tempers flare, fights ensue, mob hit men show up and all hell breaks loose before partners make peace and love prevails. No spoiler alert here. KISS ME KATE is one of the best known stories in musical comedy history.
The new material that’s been added reflects not only changing social attitudes but also the casting of Kelli O’Hara, Broadway’s reigning soprano (six-time Tony nominee and winner for the wonderful revival of KING AND I), as Lilli. Ms. O’Hara persona is just too nice to fit Lilli’s or Kate’s castrating wench. The textual adjustments don’t mess with Sam and Bella Spewack’s marvelously clever original book. Rather, Ms O’Hara creates a Kate who, while still full of piss and vinegar, is a woman who’s been wronged. And this Fred, in the hands of the always reliable and underappreciated (until this role) Will Chase, doesn’t hide a sensitivity that some Freds might leave unexpressed. This production strips KISS ME KATE of more obvious sexism, but it will always takes two to tango.
Ms. Hara’s soprano is in perfect form, and its range fully expressed in her virtuoso solo “I Hate Men” and its clarity distilled in the ballad “So In Love”. This KISS ME KATE is very much Ms O’Hara’s show, and she leaves no doubt about her claim to it in the lesser known but marvelous “I Am Ashamed That People Are So Simple” before the finale. Mr. Chase is a fine vocal complement to Ms. O’Hara, especially in their duet “Wunderbar”. In his reprise of “So In Love” in the Act 2, the tender side of his macho gets movingly expressed.
Making her Broadway debut as Lois Lane and Bianca, Stephanie Styles almost steals the show - twice - with “Tom Dick, or Harry” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”, two of Porters sauciest ditties. She’s partnered with dynamo Corbin Bleu, as Bill Calhoun and Lucentio, whose footwork dazzles here as much as it did in HOLIDAY INN several seasons ago. Warren Carlyle’s inspired choreography - along with Ms. O’Hara’s vocals - are the major assets of this KISS ME KATE. The dance routines achieve a goosebump high in the show stopper “Too Darn Hot” that opens Act 2. The ensemble, powered by two featured dancers, an amazing James T. Lane and marvelous Adrienne Walker, are joined by Bleu in the most thrilling, most muscular dance number Broadway has seen in years.
The fresh orchestrations by Larry Hochman imbue Porter’s songs - some of the best known in the musical comedy canon - with new vitality, especially in the opening number “Another Op’nin, Another Show” which Hochman has arranged to preview a medley of the score. David Rockwell and Jeff Mahshie who made effervescent the last revival of SHE LOVES ME with their set design and costumes apply their magic again here. This KISS ME KATE recalls the storybook look of musical comedy of the 1950s. It’s singing and dancing puts us gleefully, giddily back in Broadway’s Golden Age.
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