The most exciting moment in this fourth Broadway production of Cole Porter’s backstage musical riffing on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew comes at the top of Act II, when the cast at first languidly sings “Too Darn Hot” but then quickly throws themselves into Warren Carlyle’s warp-speed choreography – simultaneously old-fashioned and eye-catching, gymnastic, aerial – featuring a tap-dancing Corbin Bleu demonstrating why he is one of the great song-and-dance men of his generation.
I was thrilled. I was impressed. But I also couldn’t help thinking: If it’s so hot, why are they moving around so much?
It was a silly question, but it offered a clue to why, even in its most entertaining moments, I had trouble fully embracing this Kiss Me Kate.
Every element arguably works in its favor – a Golden Age musical that won the very first Tony Award for Best Musical; a witty and tuneful score by the great Cole Porter; Carlyle’s astounding choreography; a lush and pleasing design; and a cast of Broadway performers with proven track records, led by the lovely Kelli O’Hara, whose voice continues to astound and delight, and the dashing Will Chase.
The creative team even makes an effort to clean up some of the misogyny inherent in both Shakespeare’s play and the musical’s book. The original 1948 musical offered a story of a headstrong Hollywood star, Lilli Vanessi, being lured back to the stage by her ex-husband, the dashing impresario, actor and egomaniac, Fred Graham, to star with him in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. In the mirrored plotlines, Petruchio tames the shrew Katherine on stage, as Fred winds up taming the volatile diva Lilli. At the end, Lilli sings “I Am Ashamed Women Are So Simple,” the lyrics lifted verbatim from Shakespeare’s comedy:
I am ashamed the women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Now, Will Chase as Fred/Petruchio and O’Hara as Lilli/Katherine are meant to be equally matched, and lyricist Amanda Green has been brought on board to change that last song in the play-within-the-play to “I Am Ashamed That People Are So Simple.” So Lilli as Katherine sings:
I am ashamed that people are so simple
To offer war when we should kneel for peace
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway
When everything but love must die away.
It’s a noble and modern sentiment – people should love one another, especially spouses; it’s not a question of submission – but I’m not sure how much sense this makes. Are we meant to understand that Lilli has rewritten Shakespeare? If so, why doesn’t Fred acknowledge this? Or has Fred, to make peace with Lilli, supposed to be altering the text? Or are we not supposed to realize that these words are being said within Taming of the Shrew?
But then, in truth, the whole enterprise doesn’t make much sense. It felt analogous to The Play That Goes Wrong, a farce that doesn’t aim to make sense; it aims to entertain. Roundabout’s Kiss Me Kate asks us to put aside our intellect, and just yield to our endorphins, in a way that the other recent revivals of problematic Golden Age musicals My Fair Lady and Carousel, did not demand of us.
From her very first entrance, during the first musical number, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”, Kelli O’Hara is presented as beautiful and warm and elegant…but very far from a high-strung hellcat. In one entrance after another, dressed in yet another of Jeff Mahshie’s chic ensembles, she is the picture of glamorous magnanimity – much as O’Hara herself is. So the battles between Lilli and Fred come off strictly as comic shtick between Chase and O’Hara. It was hard to feel any kind of love/hate, pull/push attraction on any of the three levels – Petruchio/Katharine, Fred/Lilli, Chase/O’Hara.
There are several fun numbers and pleasing bits in this Kiss Me Kate, although not as many as I would have liked. The key to enjoying them is to view the show as a kind of revue, not meant to offer credible characters in realistic relationships. One choice by director Scott Ellis makes complete sense: He firmly sets Kiss Me Kate in 1948, in a theater in Baltimore. It’s as if he wants the audience to be set in the 1940s too, an era when we could enjoy the various elements of the show without worrying whether it all holds together.
Kiss Me Kate is on stage on Studio 54 (254 W 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019) through June 30. Tickets and details
Kiss Me Kate. Book by Sam and Bella Spewack, with additional material by Amanda Green; Music and lyrics by Cole Porter; Choreography by Warren Carlyle; Directed by Scott Ellis. Set design by David Rockwell, costume design by Jeff Mahshie, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Brian Ronan. Featuring
Kelli O’Hara, Will Chase, Corbin Bleu, John Pankow, Terence Archie, Mel Johnson, Jr., James T. Lane, Stephanie Styles, Adrienne Walker, Lance Coadie Williams, Preston Truman Boyd, Will Burton, Derrick Cobey, Jesmille Darbouze, Rick Faugno, Haley Fish, Tanya Haglund, Erica Mansfield, Marissa McGowan, Sarah Meahl, Justin Prescott, Christine Cornish Smith, Sherisse Springer, Sam Strasfeld and Travis Waldschmidt. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.