New York City Theater
"Kiss Me, Kate"
One of the theater’s greatest musicals, “Kiss Me, Kate” oscillates between harsh and gentle, bitter and romantic. In its latest reincarnation, presented by Roundabout and directed by Scott Ellis, the emphasis is on gentle and romantic -- except for Warren Carlyle’s fiery choreography.
Based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” the show-within-the-show gives us a pair of divorced hams, Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham (Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase), bound together in a Baltimore tryout production of the Bard’s comedy. The twosome’s battering in “Shrew” mirrors the contentious relationship of its once-coupled actors.
Jealousy, ambition, competition and the still-lit, though dim, flame of the torch they carry for each other propel Lilli and Fred, Shakespeare’s warring Katharine and Petruchio, to work out their relationship both onstage and off. Add a pair of comical gangsters, a pompous general, Jeff Mahshie’s colorful costumes, David Rockwell’s playful sets, Donald Holder’s carnival-like lighting and you have the makings of a giddy evening.
The book has been slightly updated to conform to our #MeToo era. No longer does Lilli bemoan, “I am afraid that women are so simple.” Now it’s “people” who fit that bill. The conflict between the two leads is no longer dominated by the male but is between equals. And no longer does Petruchio spank Kate.
In these perilous times, the revival is a plea for peace, dignity and equality. It’s Petruchio who has been tamed: the narcissistic braggart will enter into a shared, respectful marriage.
The Cole Porter score remains brilliant and zesty. “So in Love,” is rendered with crystalline purity by O’ Hara; “Where is the Life That Late I Led” is lustfully sung by the virile, energetic Chase; “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”; the lilting “Bianca,” boisterously danced by Corbin Bleu; and the raise-the-roof “Too Darn Hot,” which garners a mid-show standing ovation.
Yet the comedy is fitful, with unfinished gags and lost punchlines. Moreover, the battle of the sexes has been reduced to a skirmish. Oh, yes, Kate and Petruchio go at it, continuously kicking each other in the “Coriolanus,” with Kate ending up upended, but they don’t seem to mean it. Further, unnecessarily putting pelvic grinds onto Porter’s risqué lyrics in “Tom, Dick and Harry” only cheapens them.
O’Hara is radiant, even though she has to labor at Kate’s vitriol. Chase is wonderful, while Bleu’s endearing personality and sensational hoofing are impressive (at one point, he dances on a ceiling). Teaming with the equally impressive James T. Lane, they lead the ensemble in the pulsating “Too Darn Hot.” As Bianca, Christine Cornish Smith, substituting at the performance caught for Stephanie Styles, doesn’t pop, straining through “Always True to You in My Fashion.”
Director Ellis turns the libretto by Sam and Bella Spewack, supposedly based on their tumultuous marriage and that of the great acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, into a valentine to the crazy, egocentric world of the theater. Beginning and ending with an empty stage and a single “ghost” light, this production honors all who toil in show biz. And all for the audience’s benefit.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 23, 2019