Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Theater Review: Cole Porter’s ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ From the Roundabout Theatre Co.

All hail Kelli O'Hara. With Bernadette Peters and Donna Murphy now aging out of the leading female roles of Broadway musicals of the Golden Age, she is now the reigning queen of the genre. The best way to appreciate Her Majesty is to catch her Tony-nominated performance in Kiss Me, Kate, the glorious production of Cole Porter’s 1948 musical that finished its run this past weekend at Studio 54.

The Roundabout Theatre Co. had to preserve a delicate balance in this “revisal”: how to mitigate or delete the obvious sexism in that original show without losing the sense of fun that has made it an audience favorite over the years. Some changes might make purists break out in hives (e.g., the late-show number “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” has been retitled to “I Am Ashamed That People Are So Simple”).

But for the most point, the changes worked, because the bickering but bewitched pair at the heart of the show—egocentric actor/director/producer Fred Graham and his temperamental star and estranged wife, Lilli Vanessi—gave as good as they get, fully an off-stage match William Shakespeare’s quintessential battle-of-the-sexes couple, Petruchio and Kate from The Taming of the Shrew.

Ms. O’Hara took a while to find her footing as temperamental Lilli, but found her groove midway through Act I, as William Shakespeare’s fictional counterpart to Lilli, Kate of The Taming of the Shrew. In “I Hate Men,” she displays the full extent of her considerable vocal prowess—and a comic ferocity to match.

This production also featured the smooth hand of Scott Ellis, who has directed some of the best musicals of the Roundabout, including Holiday Inn, She Loves Me, and Anything Goes. Even for someone with a great track record, this past season was particularly stellar for him, as he also directed the new Tony-nominated adaptation of Tootsie. One sure touch of his clever hand comes in the scene that sets Kate roaring—when she finds not one, but a whole group of peeping toms hidden in a room, leering at her.

Will Chase, though perfectly serviceable in the double role of strutting Petruchio and egotistical producer Fred Graham, was no match for Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Tony-winning turn in the part. On the other hand, Corbin Bleu, who triumphed in the Roundabout’s well-received Holiday Inn a few years ago, is back to perform similar dance magic as Shakespeare’s Lucentio and Bill Calhoun, the hoofer and gambler who draws the unwelcome attention of the underworld.  And Stephanie Styles shines sweetly, whether as Shakespeare’s Bianca and Porter’s somewhat less innocent Lois Lane/Bianca, in “Always True to You in My Fashion.”

I couldn’t let this opportunity pass behind without expressing my appreciation for the brio exhibited by John Pankow and Tom McGowan in one of the wittiest songs in the Porter catalog, “Brush Up Yer Shakespeare.” It is hard to imagine the mix of iambic pentameter and swinging gangster patois rendered more winningly.

I never saw the 1953 screen adaptation starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson in its entirety, so the only point of reference I have for this production is the 1999 revival starring Mitchell and the late, marvelous Marin Mazzie. Despite the fact that Amanda Green was brought in this time to revise the Spewacks’ dialogue, no radical differences exist between the two productions like, say, earlier bouncy versions of Oklahoma and the far darker current one.

Longtime fans of the Roundabout have gotten used to its stagecraft marvels, and this production was no exception. Set designer David Rockwell and his crew conjured up efficiently such varying locales as a hotel, a dressing room, as well as the Padua of Fred’s Bard.

As a Roundabout subscriber, I enjoy their “Celebrity” series of post-performance talk-backs. The series title is a bit exaggerated. (I have seldom seen real celebrity leads come up afterward—indeed, I wonder if their contracts stipulate they’re too big to be obligated to do so!). But from performers who have shown up—along with the Roundabout’s Education Dramaturge, Ted Sod—I have learned a great deal about particular productions and the challenges and exhilaration associated with them, and this talk was very much in that tradition.

For instance, I found out that:

*Bella and Sam Spevack were the husband-and-wife team who wrote the “book”—i.e., a musical’s “libretto” or narrative structure—for Kiss Me, Kate, becoming the first Tony Award winners in this category. Though they based the backstage shenanigans of this musical-within-a-musical on a real theatrical “royal couple,” Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, it also mirrored their own situation: though separated as they began work, working on the show brought them together again. (For more on that original production, see my blog post from 11 years ago.)

*The placement of the musicians differed in this production from most other musicals. Music director Paul Gemignani had definite ideas about where the musicians should play. For instance, by being split in two boxes over the stage, they faced the players without being (literally) looked down on. Second, clarinetist Greg Thymius actually appeared onstage with the company as part of the rousing second-half opener, “Too Darn Hot.”

*Bleu spoke candidly but without self-pity about the physical toll the action can take on players—and what they do to counter this. In his case, it involved ice packs, ibuprofen and eating regularly. The night before this performance, he had tweaked his neck, so he and choreographer Warren Carlyle had to work out what he could and couldn’t do this time. The best thing for him, Bleu noted, was, simply, sleep, with Mondays sacrosanct as rest days, not even involving talking, let alone strenuous moving.

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