Thursday, March 21, 2019

189 (2018-2019): Review: KISS ME, KATE (seen March 20, 2019)

“Brush up Your Shrewspeare”

(Note: this review is followed by an entry on Kiss Me, Kate from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950.)

Kiss Me, Kate, widely considered composer-lyricist Cole Porter’s masterpiece, is one of the most beloved products of Broadway’s golden age of musicals. This winner of four Tonys, including the first ever for Best Musical, has had only three Broadway revivals since the original of 1948: a brief one in 1952, not long after the original closed; an outstanding one in 1999, starring Brian Stokes Mitchell as Fred Graham and the late Marin Mazzie as Lilli Vanessi; and the current Roundabout production at Studio 54.
With the 1999 production still fresh in many theatregoers’ minds, filling Mazzie’s shoes was not going to be an easy task for whoever followed her, even so formidable a presence as musical theatre superstar Kelli O’Hara. Thus the expected critical brouhaha over O’Hara’s performance, some celebrating its brilliance, others weeping over how badly miscast she is, alleging that she lacks both comic chops and a sufficiently defiant streak.
The same split carries over into the reception of the show itself, which you can check out here. In brief, though, of the 40 critics’ reviews thus far aggregated on Show-Score (and there will be more, including this one), 83% are in the positive range of 100-70, 15% in the meh range of 69-50, and 2% (a hydrogen bomb from the Wall Street Journal) in the turkey section for 49% and down.
Moi? I loved it. Or enough of it, at any rate, to keep my frequently sleepy eyes wide open throughout its two and a half hours. My wife? Not so much, I’m afraid. It wasn’t easy but I mustered all my might not to test the show’s carryover effect as we walked to the subway afterward.

That, of course, is because Kiss Me, Kate is about the romantic discord between a couple of emotional spitfires—Fred Graham (Will Chase), actor and all-around man of the theatre, and Lilli Vanessi, musical theatre star—who are divorced (but still in love, despite their protestations) and co-starring in an out-of-town musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The inspiration behind them? Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the greatest American acting couple of their day.

The show weaves their personal conflicts into Shakespeare’s farcical plot, with scenes both on and backstage, showing how alike Fred is to Petruchio and Lilli to Kate (“They call me Katharine that do talk of me”). More on the plot will be found in the material that follows these comments.

Digression: Maybe I enjoyed the show as much as I did because I’ve felt a connection to its story ever since my junior high graduation ceremony in 1955 at the Pitkin Theatre, a movie palace in Brooklyn’s Brownsville section, where I and a blonde beauty (be still, my septuagenarian heart) played the Bard’s “Kiss me, Kate, for that’s your name I hear” scene. For my pains, my English teacher gave me a Modern Library copy of Charles Reade’s 19th-century novel, The Cloister and the Hearth, a tome I never could get through. At least I got to command Myra Schneider to kiss me, and to put her over my knee. (You didn’t hear that, #MeToo people.)

Director Scott Ellis’s rambunctious (or perhaps ram-butt-kick) revival adapts the original, with new material by Amanda Green, to current feminist concerns by mildly updating Sam and Bella Spewack’s book, making Lilli/Kate a more imposing opponent to Fred/Petruchio’s overbearing chauvinism. The plot’s outdated male-female dynamics are something even revivals of The Taming of the Shrew must constantly deal with. There are also other alterations, like some repartee about gun ownership (“Guns don’t kill people,” announces Lilli’s fiancé, Harrison Howell (Terence Archie), the Spewacks’ wealthy Washingtonian power player transformed here into an army general. 
For my money, O’Hara can sing the phone book and I’ll be entranced. Looking as lovely as ever in Jeff Mahshie’s luscious costumes, she does spellbinding things with a voice that moves from register to register as easily as eating ice cream, showing off operatic chops on one number, comic abandon on “I Hate Men,” torch song heat on “So In Love,” the memory of which sears my memory as I write this. Whatever some of her critics say, O’Hara won my heart both for her singing and acting, comedy and all.
This is one of those shows with song after song whose unforgettable musicality and scintillating lyrics are so much a part of the American songbook that most people (especially those of a certain age) can practically sing along with them. Even if you find the book foolish, the characters thin, and the jokes corny, you get that special thrill of recognition when you hear “Another Opening, Another Show,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” “Wunderbar,” “We Open in Venice,” “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua,” “Were Thine that Special Face,” “Too Darn Hot,” “From this Moment On,” “Always True to You in My Fashion,” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” to cite what are probably the best known. 
And they’re all splendidly performed. Will Chase makes a suitably fatuous but handsomely romantic lead, providing talents that make the most of numbers like “Where Is the Life that Late I Led?” His physical confrontations with a Kate who won’t stand for his crap are highlights, although I could have done with a few less punts to the rear. 
As the second lead male, dancing wizard Corbin Bleu (as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio), who can also sing, shows off his rat-a-tap-tap (even upside down!) and other terpsichorean skills in routine after routine, particularly in “Too Darn Hot,” excitingly choreographed by Warren Carlyle with moves that display the sensational ensemble, especially James T, Lane, to sizzling effect. Carlyle’s dances are eye-catching, and even hilarious, as naughtily noted in the “Dick” part of “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” Dance masters Will Burton and Rick Faugno join Bleu in this sensational number, as they compete in wooing Bianca.
Playing Bleu's girlfriend, Lois Lane (Bianca in the Shrew scenes), the night I went, was exquisite understudy Christine Cornish Smith, who took over for the ailing Stephanie Styles. She demonstrated, once again, the incredible Broadway talent we too rarely get to see. Smith's “Always True to You in My Fashion” was a knockout.
As the two thugs who eventually get to do the comic gem, “Brush up Your Shakespeare,” John Panko and Lance Coadie Williams make the most of their gangsterish qualities but never quite make these pistol packers as funny as the should be. Their famous number, though, has been shifted from actual soft-shoe territory, presumably because the men don’t have the necessary dance skills, and is instead choreographed in faux-soft-shoe style with appropriate movements and accessorizing hats. Somehow, though, its humorous charms seem diminished, and the built-in encores seem more forced than necessary. 
The show has been rather extensively cast with a racially mixed company, which is now taken for granted in Broadway musicals of every period. It works perfectly well here, for the most part, but  there are several choices that test not only the idea of the color-blind policy but just how much blindness is expected of audiences. 
David Rockwell’s sets, mingling a substantial, three-storied backstage area, with dressing rooms that slide on and multiple backgrounds for the Shakespeare scenes, is sufficiently colorful and swift-moving, all of it dexterously lit by Donald Holder, with satisfactory sound design by Brian Ronan.

Kiss Me, Kate could easily be given a museum-piece revival but, even with its 1948 setting, this production seems very much of today. My wife disagrees but, since we’re still so in love after 56 years, always true to one another in our fashion, and the subject is too darn hot, I’ll avoid being asked why I can’t behave and say no more from this moment on.

Kiss Me, KateStudio 54
254 W. 54th St., NYC
Through June 30


The following is an abbreviated essay on Kiss Me, Kate from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950. The plot summary shows small differences from the current production, already noted.

Kiss Me, Kate Book: Bella and Samuel Spewack; Music/lyrics: Cole Porter; Director: John C. Wilson; Choreography: Hanya Holm; Design: Lemuel Ayers; Producers Arnold Saint-Subber and Lemuel Ayers; Theatre: New Century Theatre; opening: December 30, 1948; performances: 1,077.

Kiss Me, Kate was one of the great musicals of the 1940s. It succeeded in almost every department, including score, lyrics, book, performers, direction, choreography, and design. Comedy and sentiment mingled exhilaratingly with now-classic songs to keep audiences enthralled throughout. It represented a triumphant return to his former brilliance of painfully crippled composer-lyricist Cole {porter, whose score some thought the best of his life.

“It’s solidly enjoyable,” wrote Variety, “with one hummable tune after another, many of them with slyly music lyrics.” Some of the lyrics were lifted directly from the Bard of Avon, and nearly every song had a tight relationship to the development of the action. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times observed, “Porter has written a remarkable melodious score with an occasional suggestion of Puccini, who was a good composer, too. . . . All his lyrics are literate, and as usual some of them would shock the editorial staff of The Police Gazette.”

One of the songs that was usually encored was “I Hate Men,” soloed by Patricia Morison. The encore had special lyrics written for it. One performance was given for an audience made up largely of benefit subscribers, normally considered a deadly group to play for. On this occasion they were especially unresponsive and showed little sign of life after this song was sung. The nettled musical director thereupon turned to the spectators and spoke: “Well, you’re going to get an encore whether you want it or not,” and get it they did. (Quoted in Jack Gaver, Curtain Calls.)

The idea of taking a cure from Shakespeare to create a musical comedy was still relatively novel, having been begun only a dozen years earlier with The Boys from Syracuse. Here, the idea was given a novel twist by framing the plot of The Taming of the Shrew within a story of a battling pair of divorced but still-in-love stars, the egomaniacal actor-director Fred Graham (Alfred Drake) and the tempestuous Lillie Vanessi (Patricia Morison), who are engaged in a tryout of Shakespeare’s farce in Ford’s Theatre, Baltimore. All the action occurs between 5 P.M. and midnight, from the moments after a run-through to the period after the first performance.

A great deal is made of the parallels between Kate and Petruchio and Fred and Lilli in what follows. Lilli turns jealous when she learns that flowers she thought Fred intended for her were meant for Lois Lane (Lisa Kirk), the actress playing Bianca. During their performance of Shakespeare’s play, Lilli, professing that she is a realistic actress, gives Fred’s ribs the brunt of her elbow, whereupon Fred whacks Lilli’s behind with enormous vigor, which only makes Lilli respond with slaphappy results.

Mixed into all of this is the subplot about the affair of Lois and actor Bill Calhoun (Harold Lang), cast as Lucentio in the Shrew, and whose gambling debts lead a pair of dopey thugs (Harry Clark and Jack Diamond) to seek collection of the $10,000 owed. A further complication stems from Bill’s having signed Fred’s name to the IOU. By the end of the musical, the IOU has become meaningless because the hoodlums’ boss has been killed, and Fred and Lilli—like Petruchio and Kate, whose story dovetails with their own—have reached a romantic truce, she having abandoned her engagement to wealthy Washingtonian Harrison Howell (Denis Green).

The conception for the show (called Shrew during its developmental stages) had come from producer Saint-Subber’s experiences working backstage during the Lunts’ Taming of the Shrew for the Theatre Guild in 1935, when he observed them bickering offstage as well as on. Saint-Subber years later suggested the idea to Samuel Spewack, who agreed to do a show on the topic if Porter would do the music and lyrics. 

The musical comedy inexperience of the Spewacks, the mediocre Porter track record the last few times out, the failure of Alfred Drake to find a hit since Oklahoma!, and the decade-long absence from Broadway of Patricia Morison (cast only after bigger stars, such as Mary Martin, turned the show down), made financing a major obstacle. Twenty-four auditions over a year’s time were required to raise the $180,000 nut, and it took 70 backers to compile the sum. In what may have been record time, the investment was paid off in 16 weeks.

Drake moved even higher on the ladder as Broadway’s leading musical comedy actor, and Morison, lately of Hollywood, made a striking impression in her first major Broadway role. As the second leads, Kirk and Lang were extremely impressive, Lang making waves with his exceptional dancing (especially in “Too Darn Hot,” shared with Eddie Sledge and Fred Davis).

Thomas Dash of Women’s Wear Daily declared the show to be “one of the merriest, wittiest, most frolicsome and most talented musical carnivals that” he had seen in many months. Richard Watts, Jr., of the New York Post reported that this “smash hit of epic proportions” was “beautiful, tuneful, witty, gay, high-spirited and delightfully sung, acted, and danced.”

Hanya Holm’s imaginative, eclectic choreography embraced such diverse styles as “classic ballet, modern dance, jitterbugging, soft-shoe, acrobatics, court, and folk dance,” according to Walter Sorell’s Hanya Holm. Holm, a believer in Labanotation, had her choreography preserved in this fashion and registered under a copyright. This was the first Broadway musical to employ this practice.