“I can’t see!” an irate patron exclaimed in the opening moments of Kiss Me, Kate, perturbed that a tall person had the audacity to be seated in front of her. Her displeasure nearly drowned out the delicate opening bars of “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” the perennial paean to backstage life that starts this eternal love letter to the theater. I don’t know whether her sightline ever improved, but she stayed quiet for the rest of the performance.
As someone with an unencumbered view of the happenings onstage, I actually envied her obstruction.
Scott Ellis’s production for Roundabout Theatre Company – with overstated choreography by Warren Carlyle and sets (by David Rockwell) that aim for careworn chintz but merely look cheap – couldn’t buy an ounce of charm. Much has been made in the lead-up to this revival about the 1948 musical’s sexual politics, with contemporary composer-lyricist Amanda Green brought on board to soften some of the more boorish elements of the book and score. But the retrograde nature of a show which, after all, unrepentantly takes place in a pre-woke age emerges as the least of anyone’s problems.
That’s not to say that what Green offers the piece constitutes an improvement. Kiss Me, Kate is a score I love dearly, but I’m not immune to its more problematic elements – ditto its source material, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, a show I love less and would happily put on ice for a couple decades. But to say that Green and the show’s original composer, one Cole Porter, are not on the same level of talent is a bit like saying that cafeteria mystery meat isn’t equal to Chateaubriand. Turning the show’s penultimate number, “I Am Ashamed That Women are So Simple,” into “I Am Ashamed That People are So Simple” might gesture to the universal blindness of the human race, but the dunderheaded new lyrics are a heavy price to pay.
The new treatment loses many lines that are sharp but admittedly sexist and out of place by modern standards. It also omits quite a bit of the show’s best spoken dialogue, like much of the sparkling repartee dispatched by co-star exes Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi in the run-up to “Wunderbar,” the effervescent bagatelle that momentarily rekindles their attraction to each other. Yet even if the material had remained, I’m not sure Roundabout has assembled the right cast to deliver it. Almost to a person, the large ensemble is devoid of period style, and the four principals seem siloed in different plays – with only one getting things right.
By the time I saw the previous revival of this show, which ran on Broadway from 1999 to 2001, the late, great Marin Mazzie was shamelessly overacting as Lilli. Burke Moses, who replaced the Tony-winning original star Brian Stokes Mitchell, brought a beautiful voice and little else to Fred. Having fallen in love with the score via that production’s original cast recording, the experience served as an early lesson in the potential for theatrical disappointment.
Looking back now, I would take Mazzie’s broad approach to Kelli O’Hara’s characterful but ultimately over-intellectualized interpretation. No one denies her talents as an actor or a singer – her voice, after several recent stands at the Metropolitan Opera, sounds more ravishing and operatic than ever – but her low-key Lilli clashes with the role as written and throws the entire show into a state of confusion. If we are meant to believe that charges of Lilli’s mercurial temperament are trumped up, the production doesn’t do the work to justify that. In making Lilli neither lion nor lamb, she also renders her entirely charisma-free.
Will Chase takes a different tack as Fred, one that projects easy allure but ultimately feels entirely too contemporary. Chase isn’t a musical comedian to the manner born, and as Fred’s showpieces gain in difficulty, you’re never not aware of how hard he’s working. His instrument – more rock tenor than robust baritone – doesn’t stand up to the music, which is particularly evident during his labored “Where is the Life That Late I Led?” in the second act. He finishes the number drenched in sweat, gasping for air, and vocally exhausted.
That sense of trying too hard affects the entire chorus, given choreography that justifies every word of the score with an action. (This has become a recurrent problem in contemporary musical theater performance – when did simplicity become de trop?) It also manifests in Stephanie Styles’s effortful performance as Lois Lane, the bubbly chorine who delivers the score’s great showstopper, “Always True to You (In My Fashion).” Styles doesn’t project a natural affinity for comedy in her books scenes, but I still felt bad for the overemphasized gestural work that Carlyle saddles her with. The song is funny on its own – the humor needn’t be explained to death.
Those looking for a dash of old-fashioned star quality will find it only in the person of Corbin Bleu, who walks away with the proceedings whenever he’s on stage. He combines a honeyed voice and a virtuosic dance technique to stop the show dead with “Bianca,” a number I’ve often found flabby in the past. Not so here, as he whirls around in tap shoes, hoisting his legs over his head at one point and pounding out rhythms on the set’s ceiling. He serves as a reminder of the potential for joyous abandon found in Golden Age musicals.
Savor those moments when you can, because they’re few and far between. Among other things, Ellis’s direction largely fails to demarcate the separate spheres of the show, with very little change between the show-within-a-show and the backstage hum. The dumb-show opening suggests a first day of rehearsal, even though the musical takes place entirely during the tryout’s first preview. A crucial sense of awareness between diegetic and non-diegetic performance is missing, as when the two shady gangsters (John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams, neither as funny as they should be) wander out to deliver “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” A well-staged production could offer a double dose of catharsis from the false and real endings; here, it mostly treads water.
Those offended by the prospect of Kiss Me, Kate likely won’t find their sentiments changed by this new treatment – which, I should mention, still leaves a fair amount of questionable content on the table. Worse, in my opinion, is that those coming to it for the first time won’t find much to fall in love with.