The Roundabout Theatre Company’s current revival of Kiss Me, Kate is, in a very apt word, “Wunderbar.” Director Scott Ellis has framed the entire show as if it were a dream. It begins when a double stage door at the rear of the set opens and the two leads emerge from a smoke-filled environment–to which they return, in the end.
The Cole Porter musical is, of course, meta-theatrical, as it focuses on two characters putting on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. With Lilli Vanessi playing the Bard’s Katherine and Fred Graham directing the show as well as starring as Petruchio, we’re actually treated to a number of scenes of Shrew. Jeff Mahshie’s colorful, pastel costumes are appropriately wheeled on and off stage on racks, during the show’s opening–this is the Theater, after all.
The book for Kate is by Sam and Bella Spewack, and it proves one of the strongest of classical musicals. And then there’s Porter’s glorious score featuring one hit song after another including some of his finest: “So in Love,” “Wunderbar,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “From This Moment On,” and the opening number, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.” Indeed, Kate contains arguably the prolific Porter’s richest score, all here brought to vital life with Paul Gemignani’s music direction, with the orchestra split on both sides at balcony level, and sung to perfection by Kelli O’Hara as Lilli.
While many of the greats have tackled Kate over the years ever since it premiered in 1948, O’Hara brings a subdued charm to the usually more boisterous part of Lilli, even if she is positively beaming when she first arrives on stage. The first was Patricia Morison, and the most recent on Broadway–before O’Hara–was the late Marin Mazzie, who received a Tony Award for the 1999 revival, as did the revival itself. And then there was Kathryn Grayson in the 1953 film version.
While some of the lines and even lyrics have apparently been altered by Amanda Green, in the attempt to be politically correct and up to the minute with the #metoo movement, this reviewer felt that any such changes had no effect on the story about a divorced couple of actors who continue to work together, and, rather predictably, remarry in the end.
Though Will Chase seems miscast as Fred and his baritone could never be described as pretty, he nevertheless evokes Nelson Eddy to O’Hara’s Jeanette MacDonald when Chase and O’Hara sing “Wunderbar,” Porter’s one, true operetta number. Director Ellis has also overcome any criticism with the secondary players. They include Corbin Bleu and Stephanie Styles as Bill and Lois, the younger, foil couple to Lilli and Fred. Bleu is a triple musical comedy challenger to any rival: he can dance up an acrobatic storm, he sings perfectly on pitch, and he even demonstrates Bill’s highs and lows–his happiness and his disappointments–with aplomb.
Also on target are the steadfast John Pankow as First Man and Lance Coadie Williams as Second Man, who wow us with Porter’s wittiest song, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” The “thugs” that are coming after Fred’s money for a loan–which was actually taken out by Bill–are the Spewacks’ funniest invention for Kate, given they’re a pair of gangsters who are constantly citing Shakespeare.
Warren Carlyle’s choreography is as sublime as it is varied. (David Chase is credited with the dance arrangements.”) Be sure especially to stay awake for Bleu’s tap-dancing during “Too Darn Hot,” the second act’s opening number–when he is joined by the rest of the large ensemble – but you’d have to be a narcoleptic not to. During “Bianca,” Bleu even manages to dance on the ceiling, for a moment, like Astaire. And there’s also the suggestive swiveling of the men’s hips on the “Dick-a-dick” refrain in “Tom, Dick and Harry.”
But it’s the “Too Darn Hot” number that demonstrates just how obvious yet effective Donald Holder’s lighting design is throughout the show. It all unfolds on David Rockwell’s set designs, which feature the massive brick wall of a backstage, with three floors of dressing rooms and lots of climbing up and down stairs–among many other perfectly rendered scenes.
Despite any carping about Will Chase’s Fred, this is a Kiss Me, Kate to be seen and savored.
Kiss Me, Kate (through June 30, 2019)
Roundabout Theatre Company
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission