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Theatre in Review: Kiss Me, Kate (Roundabout Theatre Company/Studio 54)

Kelli O'Hara, Will Chase. Photo: Joan Marcus

I have good news for those of you who are weary of musicals about mean girls, proms, and the need to be more chill: Roundabout has whipped up a fizzy champagne cocktail in its revival of Kiss Me, Kate, an adult entertainment firmly focused on the finer things in life: sex, romance, Shakespeare, gangsters, and gold diggers -- not to mention some of the funniest and most beguiling show tunes ever written. I'll have a double.

For all its manifold pleasures, Kiss Me, Kate can be a tricky proposition. In musical theatre history, it occupies a spot between the gag-and-girl extravaganzas of the 1920s and 1930s -- the kind of show that Cole Porter, Kate's songwriter, excelled at -- and the more mature, integrated shows of the post-Oklahoma! era, and Sam and Bella Spewack's book is loaded with structural infelicities and plot points that don't quite make sense. And, of course, we live in the #MeToo era, when many in the audience are ready to pounce on a comedy about a brawling pair of ex-marrieds, even if the woman gives as good as she gets. That these characters are appearing in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, and Petruchio typically gives Kate a royal spanking, is enough to offend the sensitive and stoutly progressive. Special handling is called for -- without damaging a whirling, whizzing enterprise filled with backstage bickering, onstage shenanigans, and sly sexual innuendo.

There are at least two reasons why Scott Ellis' revival breezes across the Studio 54 stage like a fire engine on a five-alarm call: One is the effervescent pairing of Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase as Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham, a musical theatre version of the Lunts, unhappily divorced but professionally yoked and ready to rumble. The roles are ripe for caricature -- she as a termagant and he as a ham, thick with the glaze of self-adoration; even in the generally delightful 1999 revival, Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell sometimes worked a little too hard at roughhouse comedy, carrying on as if they had suddenly joined the WWF. Here, Ellis aims for fast-talking, sophisticated screwball farce of the sort made famous onscreen by the likes of William Powell and Carole Lombard.

Ellis and his choreographer, Warren Carlyle, set the tone with the opening, which reverses the order of the first two musical selections. It begins on an empty stage with that indelibly upbeat anthem, "Another Op'nin', Another Show," and the company of the musical Shrew assembles, going about its collective business, underscored by the overture. This lengthy musical interlude allows each principal to make a grand entrance, topped by O'Hara's arrival, dripping with drop-dead glamour. (The costume designer Jeff Mahshie channels the chic spirit of Edith Head.) Instantly, Lilli is accorded the dignity of a great lady of the theatre; we're on notice that cartoon characterizations will not be tolerated

Similarly, Ellis has O'Hara and Chase underplay their initial scenes of squabbling, set in adjoining dressing rooms. The initial impression is of a couple for whom the fires of passion, and acrimony, have been banked. They're ready to move on, and to be professional about it. Instead of pushing for laughs from these early exchanges, Ellis focuses on the number "Wunderbar," in which Fred and Lilli, fondly remembering the moonlight-and-old-lace operetta in which they once toured, launch into their favorite waltz, just for old time's sake. Porter has a great deal of fun with the number, with its overblown lyrics ("Gazing down on the Jungfrau/From our secret chalet for two") and oom-pah-pah melody; like everything else in Kiss Me, Kate, it exhales satire and romance in the same breath. The number ends with Fred and Lilli, their dance concluded, staring at each other hungrily; in a single stroke, we see that their divorce was a terrible mistake. Ellis was smart to give this warring pair some breathing room, revealing their irresistible attraction before jealousy rears its head and the donnybrook begins.

Similarly, when the musical of Shrew takes over and Kate/Lilli has her first number, it isn't staged as a temper tantrum. Instead, she walks downstage center, looks the audience in the collective eye, and, after the longest of pauses, says, as casually as possible, "I hate men." Her assurance is so total, so withering -- she might as well be saying "I hate cauliflower" -- that it can't help but produce a laugh. Throughout the number, which is too often delivered with gritted teeth and much throwing of props, the scenery remains blessedly unchewed, as Carlyle has the men in the company do the heavy lifting. As Kate crosses the stage, furious with disdain, a pair of chorus boys frantically flees in the opposite direction. In the middle of the number, she opens a tavern door to reveal the men of Padua, carrying on like a bunch of drunken fraternity brothers; she need only execute a quarter-turn, cock an eye, and look at us, as if to say, Do you see what I mean? It's a moment of pure delight.

And, when things start to go haywire -- Lilli discovers, in mid-performance, that her opening night flowers from Fred were, in fact, intended for Shrew's charmingly mercenary ingenue -- it happens with the lightest of touches; staying in character as Kate, she delivers a series of blows to Fred's head, scaring the bejeesus out of him and launching an onstage battle royal, with more kicks in the pants than in any Laurel and Hardy two-reeler. (In one concession to today's sensibilities, Kate is not spanked, but both Fred and Lilli exit the stage with plenty of bruises.) Here, the farce happens organically: Because trouble has been taken to establish Fred and Lilli as recognizable people, however comically flawed, it is all the more hilarious when they give in to their worst instincts, turning Shrew into their own private theatre of war. (Of course, they also ring the rafters with such soaring ballads as "So in Love" and "Were Thine That Special Face.")

When Chase and O'Hara aren't winning us over, the rest of the company is taking part in production numbers, staged by Carlyle, that feature some of the most sensational dancing since I don't know when. "Another Op'nin', Another Show" conjures a busy, bustling Broadway company out of thin air. "Tom, Dick, and Harry," featuring Bianca, Kate's sister, being wooed by a trio of swains, invents a different, and equally witty, dance style for Will Burton, Rick Faugno, and Corbin Bleu. The second-act opener, "Too Darn Hot," finds the company, in the alley behind the theatre, doing a crazy-with-the-heat display of hepcat energy, building to a fever pitch that leaves them flat on the ground with well-earned exhaustion.

Indeed, high spirits are contagious throughout the cast. Bleu, as Shrew's irresponsible second lead, uses his tap shoes like typewriter keys, pounding jazzy tattoos into the stage deck and frantically tapping up and down (and upside down) a set of stairs in the number "Bianca." As Lois, the ingenue, who thinks love is a game and is playing for prizes, Stephanie Styles acts dumb smartly, giving her permanent wave an extra primp before belting the final note of "Always True to You in My Fashion." She also confidently has her way with some of Porter's most fiendish lyrics. ("Mr. Gable, known as Clark/On his boat wants me to park/If a Gable boat/Means a sable coat/Anchors aweigh!") John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams slay all night long as a couple of mob goons who think, erroneously, that Fred has welshed on a gambling debt and are redirected to keep Lilli from bolting the theatre; they low-ball their laugh lines to riotous effect and render "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," that guide to wooing Will-fully, with true vaudeville relish. Adrienne Walker and James T. Lane, as Lilli and Fred's dressers, steam up the stage during "Too Darn Hot." Mel Johnson, Jr., is fun as one of Fred and Lilli's Shrew co-stars, who gets caught in the crossfire onstage. Terence Archie is appropriately stolid as the politically ambitious general who wants to spirit Lilli away and make her First Lady.

Archie's character, a businessman in the original book, earned his military stripes in the 1999 revival, which featured revisions by John Guare. (I still don't believe that this starchy, buttoned-down character would ever launch into "From this Moment On," an interpolated number that was cut from another Out of This World, a Porter flop.) The book been further revised by Amanda Green, often in the name of modern sensibilities. For example, in "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua," Petruchio's line, "I have oft stuck a pig before," has become "I've had oft bed a bore before." And the final number, "I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple," is now "I Am Ashamed that People are So Simple," its message of wifely compliance having been transmuted into a general endorsement of kindness for both sexes. (In this case, it is Shakespeare, not Porter, who gets rewritten.) There will, no doubt, be some comment about this, but, in contrast to the currently running My Fair Lady, in which everyone involved jumps through hoops trying to prove their feminist bona fides, these touches seem all of a piece. Anything else Green has done with the script is thoroughly in sync with its impudent, wisecracking tone. (The script's glaring weaknesses remain unaddressed -- how can Fred go on with the show after Lilli leaves, with no understudy -- but they matter less here.)

It's hard to carp when every few minutes unfurls another amusing David Rockwell set, contrasting a three-level backstage area, star dressing rooms, and an alley with a stunning view of the street beyond with gaily painted drops depicting various Padua scenes. Extra grace notes include the countryside drop for "We Open in Venice," with the names of various Italian cities cleverly hidden in it, and the delicious Shrew show curtain, itself a tribute to Fred's swollen ego. Mahshie's costumes contrast smart 1940s fashions with sexily cut Renaissance wear; both periods are gloriously rendered. Donald Holder's lighting contrasts starkly lit backstage scenes with Technicolor splashes for the show-within-the-show. Brian Ronan's sound design allows Porter's intricate rhyme structures to come through loud and clear.

And Ellis invents a new ending that concludes on an unexpectedly moving note. Instead of bringing down the curtain with the title tune, he returns us to the empty stage of the opening scene, engineering a moment between Fred and Lilli that clinches the proposition that they were made for each other. To quote the title tune, this Kate is absolutely bellisimo. -- David Barbour

(14 March 2019)

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