Kiss Me, Kate
Also see Sharon's review of The Car Man
Kiss Me, Kate is more than fifty years old. Based on the revival currently playing at the Shubert, it has not aged gracefully. The problem is certainly not the Cole Porter score, which is virtually overflowing with classics. From the two backstage act-openers, "Another Op'nin' Another Show" and "Too Darn Hot," to the lovely ballads, "So In Love" and "Were Thine That Special Face," to the adorably comic, "I Hate Men" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," this score just won't quit. On paper, the idea of reviving Kiss Me, Kate is an exciting proposition, giving us a chance to hear these, and many other, classic Broadway songs delivered by a new generation of theatre performers.
In reality, the book, by Sam and Bella Spewack, proves to be the hindrance. The plot begins simply. Fred Graham, an egotistical actor/producer/director casts his ex-wife, actress Lilli Vanessi, opposite himself in a musical version of Taming of the Shrew. Lilli, we learn, is still in love with Fred, despite their bickering; and when she receives pre-opening night flowers from Fred, she allows herself to believe they may reunite. However, during the performance, Lilli discovers Fred's flowers were meant for someone else. This revelation ignites her portrayal of Kate, and when Kate strikes out at Fred's Petruchio in anger, Lilli pulls no punches.
Fred responds by hitting back, and the curtain falls on the first act of their Shrew with Petruchio taking Kate over his knee, lifting her skirt, and spanking her. This isn't necessarily objectionable as some level of spousal-abuse. It is obviously intended to be comical, and more hurtful to Lilli's pride than her person. What makes it troubling is that, from the perspective of the audience, Fred is in no position to retaliate against Lilli because her onstage outbursts are completely justified. Fred had allowed Lilli to believe he had sent her flowers; he can't be surprised that she's angry when she discovers she was not the intended recipient. Similarly, when Fred finds himself mistakenly targeted by two mafia goons, he sicks them on Lilli in order to prevent her from storming out of the theatre at intermission. The upshot of all this is that Lilli is entirely sympathetic; while Fred toys with her emotions, beats her, and keeps her in the theatre by force, all in an attempt to save his precious opening night.
As Kiss Me, Kate continues toward its apparently predestined "boy gets girl back" ending, there is nothing that can be done to remedy this inequality and rehabilitate Fred into someone actually deserving of Lilli's affections. There are brief attempts made in this direction -- Lilli is engaged to be married to another man who is, by all accounts, a worse match than Fred (or Petruchio); and Fred, in the middle of the second act, finally admits to himself that he is still in love with Lilli. But it is too little too late. There is no reason Lilli should end up with Fred after the way he has treated her. The fact that Kiss Me, Kate ends somewhat ambiguously, without a definite indication that Fred and Lilli will remarry, is probably the best that can be hoped for. But even that is unsatisfactory, in that it deprives the audience of a final resolution of the main plot, and, presumably, another Porter love song.
This could all be forgiven if the fabulous score were well-sung. Rachel York, as Lilli, holds up her end. She lets her big pop voice loose on "So In Love," and finds a terrific comic belt for Kate's anthem to singlehood, "I Hate Men." Rex Smith, as Fred, is less successful. It isn't entirely his fault; the music cries out for a rich baritone, while Smith is light tenor. He therefore misses the opportunity to melt hearts with "Were Thine That Special Face," and instead gives it a faster pace and comic delivery which are much better suited to his second-act complaint, "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" The rest of the cast is equally uneven. Among the best was Nancy Anderson, who gave her last performance prior to leaving for the London production. She had the dim floozy Lois Lane down pat, and her conditional love song, "Always True to You (In My Fashion)" perfectly walked the line between saint and sinner. Also hitting the mark are Richard Poe and Michael Arkin as the Bard-quoting mafiosi, who order the audience to "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" as if giving directions to the customers at a bank heist.
There isn't as much dance in this production as there should be. "Another Op'nin' Another Show" demands to break free in an all-out dance number, but it remains largely confined in the choreography of backstage preparation. Other numbers depend more on acrobatics than dance; and although the feats are impressive, the de-emphasis of dance is clearly felt.
There may be a good revival left in Kiss Me, Kate, but with the show's dated book, it has to be one that devotes all of its attention to singing the roof off the building and dancing the audience out of their seats. For the most part, the roof is remaining on the Shubert and few toes are tapping.
Roger Berlind and Roger Horchow present Kiss Me, Kate. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter; Book by Sam and Bella Spewack. Scenic design by Robin Wagner; Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz; Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski; Sound design by Tony Meola; Orchestrations by Don Sebesky; Dance arrangements by David Chase; Casting by Johnson-Liff Associates; Fight direction by B.H. Barry; Wig design by Paul Huntley; Production supervision by Steven Zweigbaum; Production stage manager Joseph Sheridan; Technical supervisor David Benken; Associate choreographer Rob Ashford; Associate producers Richard Godwin & Edwin W. Schloss; General management 101 Productions, Ltd.; Conducted by James Moore; Tour press & marketing TMG - The Marketing Group; Musical direction by Paul Gemignani; Choreography by Kathleen Marshall; Directed by Michael Blakemore.
Taming of the Shrew Players:
Kiss Me, Kate plays at the Shubert Theatre through October 13, 2001.