Keeping in mind the importance of women’s progress during our current retrograde throw-down of conservative political churlishness, Roundabout’s Kiss Me Kate revamps misogyny and turns it on its head in this ingenious 2019 Broadway revival that leaves audiences cheering and wanting more.
Specifically, that is more of the gorgeously orchestrated Cole Porter music/songs interpreted with soulfulness, energy and vibrance by multi-talented artisan-actors; more of Choreographer Warren Carlyle’s physically pyrotechnical, gravity-defying dance numbers with a few finger-snapping, staccato tapping jazz bits slid in-between; more of the stylized old-style musical tenor and atmosphere that relaxes and massages us into a pleasant two hour reverie, especially after a few logical tweaks to enhance plot relevance; just more!
This is an exhilarating production that soars, reaches to the heavens and by the conclusion, sets us back down with the fun of its whimsical, good will and twerking tidbits of political grist in the form of a general and allusions to the Truman/Dewey presidential race. Cast principals and ensemble, good shepherd-director Scott Ellis, and Paul Gemignani’s music direction have all found their synergy together in a delightful meld. The production does not promise to be anything but what it is, entertainment joy with dollops of well-placed wisdom and irony with currency (the joke about guns). Wisely, dare you ask for “anything more” in a time of chaotic political imbroglios? Hardly.
The book has been lightly delivered from its gender awkwardness by Amanda Green’s added material, but the ironic, farce in substance remains. Sam and Bella Spewack’s play within a play structure features the Bard of Avon’s notorious satire of Italian machismo and subversive “femininity” framed by a divorced theatrical couple’s real-life story parallel. Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction when the zany hi-jinks of actress Lilli Vanessi and her ex-husband producer Fred Graham attempt to tame each other’s egos while staging their theater come-backs in a Baltimore production of Taming of the Shrew.
Drawn to each other like moths to flames, they know how to allure and provoke their best and worst aspects in the name of “the show must go on” until it can’t, then does at the point of a gun. In this both Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase find a superb stride together, especially during the reminiscences of their former relationship in “Wunderbar” and the remembrance of love which dies hard for Lilli in “So in Love,” which Kelli O’Hara sings with poignance, grace and open-throated, sonorous glory.
It is one of the high points of O’Hara’s portrayal as Lilli, echoed by the refrain sung by Will Chase’s Fred when Lilli leaves him and the show to marry General Howell (a fine Terence Archie). She claims she wants to end her theater career to be General Howell’s demure, passive hausfrau as he campaigns for Vice-president on the Republican Dewey ticket. However, once a Diva, never a hausfrau!
There are role upheavals and flipped switches. Lilli discovers Fred’s mistress machinations in a misunderstanding which turns into another betrayal of her abiding love for him. But where she may have once played the victim during their divorce, she steps into empowerment during the production of Shrew. And this prompts Lilli to become his equal while giving Fred his comeuppance during a very physical and hysterical tit-for-tat, kick-for-slap sequence as they enact the wooing scene between Katharine and Petruchio in Shrew before an unwitting, live, Baltimore audience. (us)
The ironies of the play within a play structure are just great. For example in the “violent” wooing scene which turns very real between Lilli and Fred, their “in-the-moment” spontaneity with loads of improvisation is an actors’ dream come true. Lilli and Fred are keeping their portrayals of Katharine and Petruchio fresh and alive which helps to make the Baltimore production of Shrew a hit that even thugs enjoy. The New York audience doing double-duty as the 1940s Baltimore audience cracks up being in on the humorous uptake between Lilli and Fred who pummel each other as Kate and Petruchio.
Chase and O’Hara’s acting skills explode causing a LOL laugh riot. The scene is marvelous and deeper than one might imagine for the double-take on reality and acting. O’Hara and Chase act Lilli and Fred, acting Katharine’s and Petruchio’s spontaneous, improvised reactions to each other as they go off script. They must “act” spontaneous and “moment-to-moment” and of course O’Hara and Chase do, manifesting their character’s anger from within, without pushing for laughs. This is exceptional work made to appear “easy.” It is not! Coupled with their unparalleled vocal instruments, their songs together are superb.
Altogether, the song and dance numbers are fabulous Cole Porter. Act I musical numbers which are standouts include the scenes from Shrew particularly those that take place in The Market Square in Padua. “Tom, Dick, or Harry” is a sexual dance romp with suggestive moves that are hysterically ingenious emphasizing “grinds” on the word “Dick.” Singing and dancing are just super with Stephanie Styles, Corbin Bleu, Will Burton and Rick Faugno. Their use of a bench as a dance prop over which they become airborne, absolutely astounds. Their balletic leaps mirror Olympic- style athleticism. Just gobsmacking choreography which Styles, Bleu, Burton and Faugno sail through. I was exhausted watching them.
Kelli-Lilli-Katharine’s “I Hate Men” resonates as does Will-Fred-Petruchio’s “Were Thine That Special Face.” As Lilli, who portrays Katharine, gradually confronts the mistakes she made with Fred, she expresses this learning in Katharine’s “I Hate Men.” Meanwhile, Fred notes this new Lilli and once more is entranced with her which he evidences through Petruchio’s “Were Thine That Special Face.” Chase and O’Hara reveal how their Shrew roles impact the evolution of Lilli’s and Fred’s characters on a deeper level which will eventually bring them closer by the conclusion. Their development is subtle character change; look for it. Loved it!
Meanwhile, the show must go on, but which show? The one in front of the curtain or the more fascinating one behind the curtain? Then, BAM! There is no curtain/separation between the principals acting Shrew and their real lives, a hazard of the theatrical profession. Making “all the world a stage” even sweeps up the thugs (the excellent John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams) who come to collect a gambling debt that Bill Calhoun (the wonderful Corbin Bleu who is triple-threat incredible) pawns off on Fred.
In a clever twist to keep the thugs at bay and Lilli from leaving the production, Fred has them don Shrew costumes and accompany Lilli everywhere on stage in the hope the show will go on and the thugs will take the Box Office in payment for the gambling losses. When they and the entire cast conclude Act I with the rousing and funny “Kiss Me Kate,” (O’Hara’s solo aria and the shooting of piccolo-bird are adorable) they too get in on the act, gun-a-blazing, feathers flying as the curtain falls
Though Act II begins with the incongruous “Too Darn Hot,” (when it is hot, no one wants to move) the dance/song number is so spectacular that the realm of the fantastic takes over. Corbin Bleu leads the dance team and then taps down the house with his unparalleled energy and brilliance. The Porter music is sultry, the acrobatic dance and tap number so sweep up the audience, beauty arrives. It is this ensemble’s highpoint number in the play, among the many sterling numbers. Despite the heat/movement incongruity, the singers/dancers’ investment in strutting their wares with every fiber of their physical and emotional well being, just overwhelms. Sensory enjoyment evaporates one kind of “heat” and supplants it with another, excitement.
In Act II, Fred/Petruchio’s “Where Is the Life That Late I Led” reveals the duality inherent in Fred’s change-over to eventually accept that he loves Lilli and regrets their break-up and her leaving forever. This becomes clear when Fred takes advantage of the General’s stereotyping of women by demeaning Lilli behind her back in a last ditch attempt to keep her near him in the show.
We dislike the General’s misogyny and his referral to the future Mrs. General Howell as “the little woman.” Of course Fred already sees the handwriting on the wall for Lilli’s upcoming disastrous marriage to the General. Indeed, Lilli is her “own person” which the General will force her to reorient to himself as his career will overshadow hers. He, not she, is the star of the country. The scenes between the General and Lilli point up the dichotomy between the theatrical life and the “helpmeet” life the General requires.
The fabulous “From This Moment On,” is performed by Lilli and the General with energetic, almost frenetic confidence. Lilli sings with determination that she is leaving the theater to be the wifely ambassador for the General’s campaign. Fred looks on with skepticism. O’Hara’s interpretation belies that she isn’t convinced that marrying the General is the right move, though the General is completely clueless, a harbinger of their relationship. Does she or doesn’t she? You’ll just have to see the production if you are unfamiliar with Kiss Me Kate.
Special mention must be given to the following numbers which were audience favorites: “Bianca” featuring the memorable talents of Corbin Bleu as Bill with the ensemble beautifully supporting him, and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with the erudite thugs played by John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams instructing the Baltimore/NYC audience about what a boon Shakespeare’s works/words/poetry is to impress. Both songs are crowd pleasers, choreographed, staged, performed exceptionally.
The scenic design by David Rockwell featuring the backstage brick wall leading to the dressing rooms, quaint warmly glowing lighting (Donald Holder’s varied Lighting Design is super) and back alley all lead to ready identification with the dancers and actors who become family by the end of the show. The dressing rooms are attractive and functional and the sets for Taming of the Shrew are painted in light pastel whimsy which contrasts with the dark backstage brick alley of Baltimore theater reality. Even the Shrew curtain including the credits designed by producerGraham is well thought out.
There is a savvy alignment with the wittiness of the show, as well as the divergences in the lives of the ensemble, the principals and the fantasies they create as artists. The costumes (Jeff Mahshie) likewise, are gorgeous, appropriate, piquantly colorful, from star dressing gowns to Italian city-state fashions of the wealthy Baptista and friends, and wooing Petruchio. The Hair and Wig Design is no less masterful.
Finally, one number “Always True to You in my Fashion” by Stephanie Styles (with a dumb blonde, Judy Holiday, upper register voice) as Lois Lane, I thought slipped past the gender update. The song “boasts” stereotypical tropes of the gold-digger, the girl with lucre on her mind and in her heart. Lois Lane is an opportunist who makes her way from wealthy men to pursue acting. She has an affair with Fred to land a part in the show and is his occasional plaything that upsets Lilli.
Lois Lane (the antithesis of Superman’s reporter love interest) finally ends up with Bill Calhoun (Corbin Bleu) who manages to love her despite her roaming ways (“Why Can’t You Behave,” “Bianca.”). Initially, I found this nymphet sex kitten character who sniffs after money, jewels and wealth, rankling. Then I realized that she uses sex to empower herself and the duped men fall weakly for it every time, it seems, except for Bill who’s poor. Even presidents have fallen prey to such clever women and embarrassed themselves. Indeed, she is integral to this revival and is perhaps the longest living female character type in the history of womankind.
This 2019 revival of Kiss Me Kate runs with one intermission and is just “too damn good” to miss, especially if you adore the voices of the principals Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase and the breathtaking dance talent of Corbin Bleu. The updates make sense and are appreciated as is the reaffirmation that farce and the fantastic are good like a medicine. The production runs until 2nd June.