Roundabout Theatre Company and director Scott Ellis neatly deliver a dandy new Broadway production of Kiss Me, Kate.
More spirited than exciting, this brisk revival of great American songwriter Cole Porter’s best-known musical comedy looks nice, sounds pretty, moves fleetly, and rarely ceases to beguile the eye and ear at Studio 54, where the revival opened on Thursday.
Word along the gutter theatrical rumored that the Sam and Bella Spewack script and Porter’s lyrics had been altered considerably to succor today’s tender sensitivities over abusive or sexist excesses lurking within this 1948 backstage variation on Shakespeare’s battle-of-the-sexes tale. As it turns out, the revisions are few and relatively minor.
Kelli O’Hara, appearing in fine, fiery form, co-stars with Will Chase as Lilli and Fred, a formerly married show-biz couple who are gingerly reteaming for a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew which is shaking down in Baltimore during a pre-Broadway tour. Temperamental Lilli and egocentric Fred clash onstage and off during the performance, just as Kate and Petruchio, their Shakespearean parallels, give each other hell on their bumpy road to a happy ending.
Two hoodlums bent on collecting a debt get involved in their feuding, as do Bill and Lois, the show-within-the-show’s secondary performers and … why am I telling you all this? Most of you reading this are likely cognizant of the plot for Kiss Me, Kate, and appreciate its top shelf status as one of the finest ornaments from the Golden Age of the Broadway musical.
Those of us who cherish memories of the musical’s elegant 1999 incarnation top-lined by the late, great Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell may find this latest revival to be a trifle, well, ordinary—as opposed to extraordinary—but it is still a very capable rendition of an enduring Broadway classic. This Roundabout production is likely to please anyone who craves a vintage musical comedy that is quick on its feet and melodious with evergreens such as “Always True to You in My Fashion” and “Wunderbar.”
Looking lovely and lending luscious voice to “So in Love,” Kelli O’Hara satisfies as a glamorous diva who pulls no punches around Fred. Abetted by some witty staging, her “I Hate Men” is deliciously snarky. The sequence when Fred spanks Lilli (famously depicted in photos of the original show) has been eliminated in favor of them repeatedly kicking each other’s backsides.
Fred is written as a producer-director-star in the Orson Welles manner, and although Will Chase deftly deploys a nice light baritone voice, his otherwise suave performance lacks the wacky grandeur that a Douglas Sills or a Brian d’Arcy James might bring to the role. Together, O’Hara and Chase may strike few sparks but their testy exchanges are enjoyably snappish.
Meanwhile, in the secondary leads department: Stephanie Styles coyly affects a tinny soubrette voice as Lois that miraculously vanishes whenever she sings, which she does vivaciously. As her vis-à-vis Bill, a beaming Corbin Bleu is a cocky presence and a tireless (if rather heavy-footed) tap dancer. Adrienne Walker and James T. Lane as backstage personnel, and particularly John Pankow’s droll depiction of a pin-striped mug who gets struck by the stage, further brighten the proceedings.
This Kiss Me, Kate is one of the best-looking attractions that Roundabout has produced in some time. David Rockwell frames the show in a swank proscenium within which he alternates dusky backstage areas and pretty, pastel, old-school settings for the musical-within-this-musical. Jeff Mahshie dresses the company in snazzy late ‘40s duds and jewel-hued Renaissance costumes.
Ellis’ staging moves everything along swiftly even as Warren Carlyle’s lively choreography aptly kicks it up. A torrid “Too Darn Hot” combo of tapping, period dance steps, and hep-cat attitudes sharply performed by the ensemble and strikingly lighted by Donald Holder, all but stops the show. The pelvic thrusting of the gents during “Tom, Dick, or Harry” looks obvious but it nabs laughs. Musical director Paul Gemignani smoothly interweaves the strings and brasses of Larry Hochman’s orchestrations.
Purists may not be thrilled by the politically correct changes to the lyrics of “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” “Bianca,” and especially of Shakespeare’s own words that Porter set to music as “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.” Here, “people” has been swapped for “women” and the cautionary sentiments broadened to embrace lovers rather than wives.
Such alterations are scarcely harmful to the integrity of the work and the vast majority of audiences won’t know the difference anyway. Besides, they’ll be too busy enjoying the show to care.