REVIEW: Roundabout’s satisfying but uneven “Kiss Me, Kate”
When it’s hot, it’s genuinely too darn hot.
The rest of the time, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s current Broadway revival of “Kiss Me, Kate” is just too darn meh.
The highs are easy to spot: Warren Carlyle’s dazzling choreography in the hands of a tight and diverse ensemble (impressive throughout but particularly on the act two opener “Too Darn Hot”); Kelli O’Hara’s perfect (as always) singing voice; David Rockwell’s lush and cheeky set designs; Donald Holder’s gorgeous lighting; and Corbin Bleu’s, well, everything.
The rest of the elements are just . . . fine, lacking the special touch and elevated effervescence that define Broadway.
This beloved 1948 backstage musical comedy, the first ever to receive the Tony Award for Best Musical, is best known for its brilliant show-within-a-show conceit in which the onstage action on opening night of a touring musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” in Baltimore mirrors the backstage squabbles and romances of its actors.
While not terribly innovative, “Kiss Me, Kate” is a sturdy and masterful entry from the golden age of musical comedy that features Cole Porter’s finest score and a whip smart, hilarious, and impeccably structured book by husband and wife duo Sam and Bella Spewack (though, surprise surprise, Bella did nearly all of the work).
Blissfully revived on Broadway for the first time in 1999, that critically acclaimed production starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and the late-Marin Mazzie earned 12 Tony nominations and set a high water mark for me as to what a truly great musical revival can be and do. A recent viewing of the “Great Performances” live taping from London confirmed by teenage conclusions.
And so I admit that, twenty years later, Roundabout had high expectations to meet. Thankfully, this production makes no attempt to copy 1999 (otherwise that tape would suffice). It is its own version with a specific voice and vision. If 90% of directing is casting, though, director Scott Ellis (“Tootsie”) misses the mark on multiple fronts.
As lovely as they sound and look (particularly while singing the beguiling beguine “So In Love”), Ms. O’Hara (“The King and I”) and Will Chase (“The Mystery Of Edwin Drood”) as dueling, vainglorious, recently divorced theatrical couple Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham—inspired by real life stage royalty Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt—regretfully produce no sparks and few laughs where both should flow in plentiful supply.
Two roles that scream for broad performance are played with a timidity and intimacy that does not serve the material or the form, diluting the entire story and robbing it of the charm, romance, and stakes it should possess. High comedy and winsome drama is reduced to a dull, flat simmer. Mr. Chase, who I typically enjoy, is hardly even memorable, while Ms. O’Hara is just out of place.
As the dim but alluring nightclub singer plucked to play Bianca, younger sister to Katharine, Stephanie Styles’ Lois Lane often seems plucked from an entirely other show altogether, in both presence and style. In her hands, the magic of Porter’s wry and witty lyrics, especially in “Always True to You in My Fashion”, are completely lost on delivery (busy staging doesn’t help, either), which is a cardinal sin in the religion of musical theatre.
Similarly, the two gangsters that stalk the Ford’s Theatre—known simply as “First Man” (John Pankow) and “Second Man” (Lance Coadie Williams)—perform an astoundingly lame rendition of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, a classic “in one” number with a built-in procession of increasingly funny encore verses that should keep the audience wanting more, instead of checking their watches.
Terence Archie’s Harrison Howell, Lilli’s military-man fiancé, delivers a belabored version of “From This Moment On” (a song from the 1953 film that was added to the stage musical for the revival, but should be cut) devoid of oomph for a character who is mostly a cartoon.
Is the show-within-the show good? Is it bad? Most of the time it just is, evincing no point of view from Mr. Ellis though fortunately saved by Mr. Carlyle’s energetic and entertaining movement (the “Tom, Dick, or Harry” trio is magnificent). This is a lost opportunity that takes the steam of out what should be a propulsively infectious evening of musical theatre heaven.
All that said, “Kiss Me, Kate” is so structurally sound and well-written, that even a middling production is satisfying—and this one has the benefit of some truly great moments, almost all of which share a common denominator.
In the role of gambling Broadway hoofer Bill Calhoun, Corbin Bleu (“Holiday Inn”) makes a splash every time he is on stage, lending the missing sparkle quotient that should exist elsewhere in the production. His tap dancing in “Too Darn Hot” and “Bianca” is sublime—and, in the latter case, performed upside down—as is his scene work throughout, consistently nailing the style of the period and infusing the show with a much-needed slick and sly energy.
That twice alluded to act two topper “Too Darn Hot” features easily the best dancing on Broadway right now, offering one of the few examples where this revival tops its 1999 predecessor. While the song serves no real dramatic purpose other than to ease the audience back into the show, Mr. Carlyle tells an evocative and ecstatic story through a mix of characters taking an intermission refuge from Baltimore’s June heat in the alleyway of the Ford’s Theatre.
Paul (James T. Lane), Fred’s assistant, starts the action off slowly, alongside a featured clarinetist, but before too long the alley fills, relationships emerge, and a transcendent explosion of energy and movement kicks the show into high gear. Suddenly, the “Kiss Me, Kate” I was waiting for arrived, only to fade in the next scene, popping back a few more times before the final curtain.
To meet this cultural moment, librettist Amanda Green (“Hands on a Hardbody”, “Bring It On”) provides “additional material” to soften and shape the misogyny of Porter and Spewack (and William Shakespeare!) by placing both Lilli and Katharine, the character she plays, in firmer, if not equal command with Fred/Petruchio.
The most glaring changes come in the final song, edited from “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” (a quote from “The Taming of the Shrew”) to “I Am Ashamed That People Are So Simple”, subbing “mate” for “husband” as Lilli as Katharine is ultimately tamed. It takes chutzpah to edit Cole Porter and William Shakespeare, and I’d like to think audiences are smart enough to understand that performing a sexist point of view in a play from the 16th century is not meant as an endorsement of that view in 2019, but here we are anyway.
Without doing a side by side script analysis, it’s hard to judge the merits of the cuts and additions, but the plot of “The Taming of the Shrew” is inherently sexist, so cosmetic changes will only go so far. Scholar Anne Melissa Potter’s recent research in the Samuel and Bella Spewack papers at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library reveals that even as “Kiss Me, Kate” was being written, Bella tried to offer her own progressive take on Katharine and to boost Lilli and Fred’s shared awareness of the play-within-the-play’s retrograde perspective on women. Alas, she was overruled by the men in the room.
71 years later, edits aside, this production plays nearly everything too safe, whipping up a few moments of frenzied greatness, and otherwise giving a steady, pretty, occasionally fabulous but ultimately underwhelming presentation of a show that I know can be better.
A ghost light on an empty stage, “Kiss Me, Kate” famously begins with “Another Op’nin, Another Show”, an ode to the theatre on par with Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and Hamlisch and Kleban’s “What I Did for Love”. It’s an irresistible sentiment that brings a tear to my eye, for there’s always another opening and another show to look forward to. In the meantime, we are darn lucky to have “Kiss Me, Kate”, for all its moments that are too darn hot and, yes, even those that are just too darn meh.
Bottom Line: The Roundabout Theatre Company’s new Broadway revival of “Kiss Me, Kate” is occasionally too darn hot, but mostly just too darn meh. Some key casting mistakes keep this well-appointed production from soaring where it should, but the choreography is a knockout and the musical itself so structurally sound and well-written that it cannot fail to entertain—uneven as it is, but still satisfying.
“Kiss Me, Kate”
Roundabout Theatre Company
254 West 54th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: March 14, 2019
Final Performance: June 30, 2019