The 1948-49 Broadway season saw the openings of Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill’s Love Life (I know, you’re already thinking, not fair! But wait, it gets better), Frank Loesser’s Where’s Charley?, Sigmund Romberg’s My Romance, Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia (staged by Agnes de Mille and starring Kitty Carlisle in the title role), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, Lend An Ear, the revue that introduced Carol Channing’s satellite-disc peepers to the world, and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate.
What’s missing? There’s not a single teenager in sight! Nor even an exclamation point!
I could end my review of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s tap-happy revival of Kiss Me, Kate right here, with thanks for providing escape from the angsty abyss, the zitty tsunami, the self-pleasuring black hole that obsesses Broadway today. (Not that there’s anything wrong with horny teenagers. Even Shakespeare knew when to move on to adult matters. Really, enough already.)
But of course, it’s more complicated than that. Kiss Me, Kate is one of the great ones, up there in most musical mavens’ top five. It has the Shakespearean imprimatur of Taming of the Shrew. It has Broadway’s favorite subject, attractively monstrous actors’ egos in love and apposition. It has gangsters. It has “Too Darn Hot,” “From This Moment On,” “So in Love,” “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Always True to You in My Fashion” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
At Studio 54, where the current revival has opened, it also has Kelli O’Hara, Broadway’s reigning diva and first choice for leading roles in A-level revivals (the list includes South Pacific, The King and I, and the Roundabout’s productions of The Pajama Game and Follies), trilling her heart out as though she were auditioning for the Queen of the Night in the next Met production of The Magic Flute (hired!). As Fred/Petruchio to her Lilli/Kate, Will Chase brings a swaggering 40s style to the role – the smug smile, the clipped mustache of a Douglas Fairbanks. And leading the company with the most pulse-enhancing explosion of tap dancing in years is Corbin Bleu, who did much the same for Holiday Inn (remember “Heat Wave” and “Cheek To Cheek”?) on this stage a few seasons back.
You may hear the distant mewling of a “but” in the distance, and you would not be mistaken. For all the pleasures this revival offers, Scott Ellis’ production, with dances by Warren Carlyle, comes with several serious caveats. Purists will find Amanda Green’s tweaking of the Sam and Bella Spewack book more sore-thumby than the similar but smoother surgery John Guare performed in a celebrated revival two decades ago. (As for further comparisons, sorry, but I’m not going there.)
A few casting miscues nearly upend the show. Notably, the very appealing Stephanie Styles plays Lois Lane/Bianca as though she were in a different comedy – maybe as comically idiotic Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain – relieving “Tom, Dick, or Harry” and especially “Always True to You” of any resonance. Terence Archie is charmless as Lilli’s martinet beau Harrison Howell, and pitch problems at the performance I attended made Harrison’s “From This Moment On” nearly unendurable. John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams, on the other hand, bring a savvy innocence to the Bardophile gangsters, and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” activates the surefire enthusiasm of the audience members.
Ellis, a superb director of these revivals, opts for a purposely dated style here, most evident in having his stars front and center, delivering the delicious soliloquies – O’Hara’s “So in Love" and “I Hate Men;” Chase’s “Were Thine that Special Face,” and “Where Is the Life that Once I Led” – directly to us. Wrong. Carlyle’s choreography bespeaks his usual athleticism and perhaps a bit more, if the bruises on several dancers’ legs are any indication. Was that abject fear I saw on the faces of several chorines during the flung-bodies Act I closer? Looked that way to me.
David Rockwell has provided luscious, watercolor-drenched sets accented by Donald Holder’s refulgent lighting, and Jeff Mashie’s costumes are beautifully muted, especially in the lovely opening, when the earth-toned company frames O’Hara’s star entrance in satiny grays. I’ll hold that image, along with Bleu’s gravity-defying feet feats, as lasting reminders of a very good presentation of a very great musical.