|A CurtainUp Review
Kiss Me Kate
--- the Original Review ---If there's a sort of tv earthwatch room for playwrights and composers in the heavens, surely Cole Porter and Will Shakespeare would be there applauding the latest incarnation of Kiss Me Kate. Maybe Will would turn to Cole and declare "You sure knew how to write show stoppers with lyrics that sizzle with sophistication. And those two guys in the pin striped suits doing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" are something." The ever sophisticated Cole might respond with a tactful "well, your Taming of the Shrew triggered my musical muse with a great play within Bella and Sam Spewack"'s play. I think those feminists have come far enough to leave this show humming and not puffing -- even without that "tweaker" John Guare, but I've seen worse diddlings with your script.
Premature as this may sound, this production is certain to walk off with a handful of awards within the best musical revival category. With or without prizes, it is definitely a crowd pleaser. For a refreshing change that crowd will be all-inclusive, including the most discriminating musical theater buffs as well as tourist and family audiences. To borrow from one of more than a dozen of Porter's brilliantly sophisticated hits, this Kiss Me Kate is absolutely "Wunderbar"! Director Michael Blakemore has put together a production that's got it all. Let me count the ways --
The amusing two-tiered book by the Spewacks. It crosscuts between the backstage squabbles of a divorcd couple ( inspired by Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontaine who, while never divorced, did squabble) and their on stage musical production of The Taming of the Shrew thus affording a double opportunity to create songs and dances. It's worth noting that the Spewacks too were not strangers to the battle of the sexes. In fact, they were separated when they began work on the show but were reconciled by the time it was completed.
Cole Porter's songs and lyrics which take full advantage of the possibilities of the play-within-a-play. Porter wrote enough enduring show stoppers for a dozen one-hit-multi-reprise Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganzas. Mr. Blakemore has masterfully tied together the strands of the private lives of Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham and Shakespeare''s Katharine and Petruchio so that the shift from one to the other doesn't miss a step.
Sizzling choreography. Speaking of steps, this is truly a high stepping musical. Kathleen Marshall's awe-inspiringly original choreography is blessedly free of the aerobics class look that has prevailed in so many recent musicals. What's more, the dance routines, which can best be described wunderbar, are not in short supply.
Two truly shining stars. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie have already worked together in another big musical, Ragtime, but not as lovers. Now they prove themselves a delightful romantic team, each handling the comic demands of their double roles with panache. Both have terrific voices that deliver Porter's lyrics with crystal clarity -- his mellifluous and velvety, hers lush enough to handily scale a few trills. Their respective renditions of "So In Love""", her " I Hate Men" and his "Where Is the Life That Late I Led" are showstoppers (among numerous others). Ms. Mazzie would be even more enjoyable if she didn't have to scowl ferociously quite so often -- but then what's a shrew without shrewishness!
Plenty of revolving stars. This is a big show with impressive talents evident throughout the ensemble. Michael Berresse, who has danced his way through a number of other Broadway shows (he originated the role of Fred Casely in the still running Chicago), displays gasp-inducing acrobatic skills in the Act II "Bianca" number during which he navigates his way to the top rung of the three-story backstage catwalk. Amy Spanger, his girl friend (in both stories), is likely to be the season's most promising fresh talent. She behaves very well indeed in "Why Can't You Behave?" and " "Always True To You Darling (In My Fashion).
Another standout dancer, Stanley Wayne Mathis, gets the second act off to a spectacular start when he leads the ensemble in "Too Darn Hot." As a rule, I'd say this number was too stretched out, but given its pulsating beat and the performance of Mathis and the other dancers, it more than deserves this full treatment. The same is true of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (in which you learn that "Othella was a helluva fella") by the show's endearing and memorable comic duo, the ever versatile Lee Wilkof and his gangster cohort Michael Mulheren. In their pin striped suits (and also their stint in Padua ), this dynamic duo could easily steal the show if the cast wasn't so uniformly excellent.
Sets and costumes. Robin Wagner has created the show's two worlds with great style -- the stars'' dressing rooms plus the towering back alley-rear window theater scene and the Elizabethean era Padua. Instead of scenery which at times seemed to chew up the performers in Saturday Night Fever, the designer, abetted by Peter Kaczorowski' effective lighting, here fully supports the flavor of the theatrical world and its inhabitants -- as does Martin Pakledinaz with his many colorful and stylish costumes.
What about the changes made in the script (said to be the work of John Guare, but unattributed)? The most obvious revision is in the role of Lilli's fiance. This time around he's a corn-cob smoking general (shades of MacArthur) whose presidential ambitions and roving eye threaten to turn Lilli into one of those loyal political appendages -- in short a woman no better off than the chastened Katharine. It's an amusing if not particularly necessary fillip, its most positive side effect being that it paves the way for Ron Holgate (the general) to sing "From This Moment On" from the movie version of the play. Does this deflect the objectionable sexism of the Shakespeare side of the musical? Thanks to the two leads and the deft direction, the show is hardly fatally anti-feminist even without script changes. In fact only a tone-deaf, feminist fanatic would fail to see that this is all in good fun and grand entertainment.