Kiss Me, Kate Offers a Stageful of Delight, From Kelli's Slapstick to Corbin's Tapping
O'Hara and Bleu star in this new Broadway revival alongside Will Chase and Stephanie Styles.
There's a soft spot in my heart for the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate, with those velvet voices of Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Michael Berresse scaling the back wall of the set. As far as memories go, those are hard to top.
I went into Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival of this Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack classic excited but trepidatious. The production at Studio 54 has all the ingredients of success: direction by musical comedy master Scott Ellis, choreography by the zazzy Warren Carlyle, and a sterling cast headed by Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase. But as the lights went down, I found myself hoping that this Kiss Me, Kate would just simply stand up next to that amazing two-and-a-half hours from 20 years ago.
The first 15 minutes are a little rough around the edges. At times, Ellis's direction seems aimless, crucial chemistry is lacking, and certain numbers don't land as they should. But when Kiss Me, Kate kicks into high gear, it becomes musical-comedy heaven, delivering exuberant showstopper after exuberant showstopper.
Tensions and libidos are running high backstage at Ford's Theatre in Baltimore, where a new musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is about to have its first performance. Still madly in love but refusing to admit it, the show's egomaniacal director, producer, and star, Fred Graham (Chase), is feuding onstage and off with Lilli Vanessi (O'Hara), his leading lady and former wife, making her long-awaited return to the theater after a stint in Hollywood.
Lilli is particularly bothered by Fred's wandering eye, especially when it sets its gaze upon Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles), the beautiful young cabaret singer he cast in a crucial supporting role. Meanwhile, Lois's boyfriend, featured player Bill Calhoun (Corbin Bleu), has lost so much money gambling that he's signed Fred's name to an IOU for $10,000. But the show must go on, even when temperatures soar, Lilli threatens to walk, and two bumbling gangsters (John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams) arrive to collect on Fred's "debt."
Though the first few scenes are strangely adrift, Kiss Me, Kate finally gets going once O'Hara begins "So in Love," her lush soprano caressing every syllable of Porter's lyrics. This exquisitely performed study of longing is topped by O'Hara's bluntly hilarious "I Hate Men," which reminds us all of what we frequently forget: While she doesn't do musical comedy very often, Kelli O'Hara is a great comic actor.
Watching someone with a stately presence lose their cool is always funny, and O'Hara uses her inherent grandness to her comedic advantage here. Her Lilli isn't an over-the-top prima donna; she's a class act. Chase, who deliciously revels in his opportunity to play an outlandish matinee idol with a huge ego, infuses Fred with the perfect amount of preening buffoonery to balance it out. While there isn't much sexual tension between them (and that's important), when they start kicking the hell out of each other during the Shrew scenes, it is perfectly calibrated and thoroughly sidesplitting. (Thanks to new alterations to the 1999 revival script by Amanda Green, the outdated gender politics of the material is downplayed somewhat: Fred has lost his propensity to "tame" Lilli via spanking.)
Choreographer Carlyle takes full advantage of Bleu's considerable skill as a dancer, and, in pairing him with Rick Faugno and Will Burton, turns the first-act number "Tom, Dick, or Harry" into a dance-off that sends the audience into a frenzy. They go a step further with the terrific second-act opener, "Too Darn Hot," where Bleu and featured cast member James T. Lane go head-to-head for a tap pas de deux. During "Bianca," Bleu taps his way up a staircase, propels himself upside down, and continues tapping on the ceiling. Carlyle's dances are glorious, and it's extraordinarily well-performed all around. I really didn't want any of them to end.
In her Broadway debut, Styles seizes the spotlight as Lois, buoyantly joining the men on "Tom, Dick, or Harry," and later, "Always True to You in My Fashion." The latter number doesn't land as well as it should, but it's not her fault; Ellis and Carlyle seem to have given it short shrift, and the number just doesn't build the way it's supposed to (a real shame, because she's delightful). "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" also feels anemic, made more problematic by Pankow and Williams's occasionally unclear enunciation.
Musical revivals are scarce this season, and while there are some generally run-of-the-mill elements to this revival — neither David Rockwell's set nor Jeff Mahshie's costumes are particularly imaginative — it is geared toward the theatergoer who revels in the classics. With high-flying dancers, O'Hara's soaring vocals, and Paul Gemignani's 33-instrument orchestra, I'm happy to look past the imperfections. This Kiss Me, Kate is a real treat.