Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 14, 2019
Kiss Me, Kate Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Sam and Bella Spewack. Directed by Scott Ellis. Choreography by Warren Carlyle. Music direction by Paul Gemignani. Set design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Jeff Mahshie. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Dance arrangements by David Chase. Additional material by Amanda Green. Hair and wig and design by David Brian Brown. Makeup design by Christian McCulloch. Associate choreographer Jason A. Sparks. Fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Cast: Kelli O'Hara, Will Chase, Corbin Bleu, Terence Archie, Mel Johnson Jr., James T. Lane, Stephanie Styles, Adrienne Walker, Lance Coadie Williams, Darius Barnes, Preston Truman Boyd, Will Burton, Derrick Cobey, Jesmille Darbouze, Rick Faugno, Haley Fish, Tanya Haglund, Erica Mansfield, Marissa McGowan, Sarah Meahl, Justin Prescott, Christine Cornish Smith, Sherisse Springer, Sam Strasfeld, Travis Waldschmidt, and John Pankow.
With the 71-year-old musical's inextricable connection to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, it is difficult to ignore or cover up the sexism that percolates into Kiss Me, Kate from Shrew. Everything gets stuck in the mire of its heroine's ultimate capitulation to "male superiority." So what to do? Well, you can take a cue from the creative team behind this production and "brush up your Shakespeare; start (mis)quoting him now." For this sort of reconceptualization, you can credit Amanda Green, the go-to person for tweaking musicals by providing "additional material." Green operates with the precision of a surgeon. Snip a word here. Change a phrase there. Et voilà! We have a Kate for the age of #MeToo. I'll let you discover for yourself the nips and tucks that have taken place, but rest assured that even if you are a Porter or Shakespeare purist, if you leave your high horse in the stable and join the crowd, you will have a wonderful time.
Where to begin heaping praise? Well, how about with Kelli O'Hara, whose performances have graced musical revivals for more than a decade. From Babe Williams in The Pajama Game to Nellie Forbush in South Pacific to Anna Leonowens in The King and I, she has always given 110 percent. Yet I have never before heard her let loose with her soaring coloratura soprano the way she is doing in the lead role of Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate. Nor have I ever before been moved to tears as I was here while listening to "So In Love" or the final number that begins "I am ashamed." Her rendition of these songs is truly wunderbar.
Ms. O'Hara also delivers her comic lines with perfect timing. Her lead-in to the song "I Hate Men," for example, is exquisitely funny, and she handles with seeming ease the demands of the show's Punch and Judy physical comedy as Lilli locks horns with her ex-husband and current acting partner Fred Graham.
While the role of Fred is generally associated with a full-throated baritone (Alfred Drake in the original production; Brian Stokes Mitchell in the well-received 1999 revival), here it lies in the vocal talents of tenor Will Chase. If you are familiar with Drake's or Mitchell's performance through recordings, it may come as a surprise to hear "Where Is the Life That Late I Led" being sung by a tenor, and one not nearly so robust in appearance as his predecessors.
Yet by letting a little air out of the tires of the bombastic Fred, and by imbuing Lilli with more confident certitude and, when called upon, physical prowess, the production gives us rather a more balanced matchup. Even when they are battering each other during a scene from the show-within-a-show (a musicalization of The Taming of the Shrew, natch), they are perfectly paired so that what you get is a true love-hate (but really love) relationship between equals. In a way, they come off rather like Oscar Jaffee and Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century, another musical it would be fun to see Chase and O'Hara tackle.
While both characters, Lois and Bill, are supporting roles, Mr. Bleu earns his place above the title alongside O'Hara and Chase because of his show-stopping skills as a dancer. If you saw him a couple of years back in Holiday Inn, you may recall that his dancing was a highlight of a mostly bland production. Here, like Ms. O'Hara, he has been encouraged to cut loose to the nth degree, both in the sizzling Act II opener, a snazzy, jazzy version of "Too Darn Hot," and a little later in what might otherwise have been a charming little throwaway song, "Bianca." So Kudos to Mr. Bleu and to choreographer Warren Carlyle, who has also come up with a sparkling and slightly burlesque-y version of "Tom, Dick, or Harry," in which Ms. Styles as Bianca is joined by Mr. Bleu, Will Burton, and Rick Faugno as her suitors.
Only occasionally do things fall into the realm of the tried-and-true. Ms. Styles' Lois comes off as an overly familiar fun-time gal stereotype, and the comic number "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," while well-performed by John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams, offers no fresh take.
Yet in thinking about the production as a whole, smartly directed by Scott Ellis, what makes it all work is the attention to detail while honoring theatrical tradition. David Rockwell has carefully provided two different styles for his set design. One is for the realistic-looking backstage and alleyway scenes, and the other is a more fanciful, pastel-shaded look for the acting company's on-stage show scenes. Paralleling this are Jeff Mahshie's costumes, which pay homage to designs from the original stage production. It has also been reported that Mahshie obtained for Ms. O'Hara's Lilli to wear, a hat that Marin Mazzie wore when she played the role opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell. And even the bookending use of the ghost light adds a loving touch. I also have to say, however, that I do like Amanda Green's updating tweaks to the script. It may be "PC," as some are likely to scoff, but it removes an impossible problem and allows us to thoroughly enjoy this altogether delightful interpretation of Kiss Me, Kate.