theater review

Theater Review: Can Kiss Me, Kate Survive a 2019 Gaze?

From the Roundabout’s Kiss Me, Kate, at Studio 54. Photo: Joan Marcus

This might count as blasphemy, but sometime after high school, I began to wonder if Monty Python and the Holy Grail is more fun to sit around and talk about than to actually watch. You can jump from bit to bit, from coconuts to “I’m not dead yet!” to Enchanter Tim, enjoying your nostalgia and your own impressions, eliding the clunky and onerous and the stuff that, most troubling of all, just isn’t quite as hysterical as you remember it being. Now I’m wondering whether the same phenomenon might not apply to Kiss Me, Kate, the brassy 1948 musical comedy that reinvigorated Cole Porter’s career with its zany Shakespearean antics and its score full of witty, hummable hits. The songs are, as the show itself would put it, wunderbar (well, 75 percent of them are), and there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing the best of them batted over the fences by incredible singers and dancers: In Roundabout’s current revival, the majestic Kelli O’Hara’s honey volcano of a voice pours out with seemingly zero effort, and you can almost see smoke rising from the heels of the gazelle-like ensemble as they tear through Warren Carlyle’s splashy golden-age choreography. Virtuosity is fun, and so is spectacle, and in extravagant enough quantities, they’ll go a long way toward carrying a show — but they won’t go the distance. The sad truth — sad at least for a longtime lover of Porter’s songs — is that for all its pizzazz, Kiss Me, Kate itself feels irretrievably dated. Scott Ellis’s production, which has flair but not fascination or surprise, would work better as a highlights reel: all the moments of real pleasure without the big, tedious gaps in between.

No matter how bright and gay a production of Kiss Me, Kate might be, the musical’s source material casts a long, uncomfortable shadow. It’s a theater-people-making-theater play, and the theater people in question are headed up by Frederick Graham (Will Chase), a swaggering director-producer who’s starring in his very own musical adaptation of that most unfixable of Shakespeare’s plays, The Taming of the Shrew — starring as the tamer Petruchio, of course, alongside his ex-wife, the acerbic Hollywood star Lilli Vanessi (O’Hara), as Katherine, the titular shrew. The pair clash onstage and off on opening night, the inevitable rekindling of their affection complicated by misguided flirtations, gambling debts, singing gangsters, and other enjoyable fluff. Kiss Me, Kate’s real-life original producer came to Porter with the idea for the show after witnessing actual star couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne ripping into each other backstage during a 1935 production of Shrew. Then he got Sam and Bella Spewack, a husband-and-wife team not known for their wedded bliss, to write the book. So, all in all, that’s four wrangling couples, two real and two fictional, all somehow conspiring to shove the square peg of unhappiness into the mandatory round hole of a happy musical ending. And an ending where happiness is predicated on a woman being broken like a horse. Porter and the Spewacks had no problem setting Shrew’s execrable conclusion to music and calling it a day (“I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple”). Here, Ellis and his team have mollified the cringe-y finish with a 2019 tweak: In the retitled penultimate song, O’Hara gets to sing not about the intransigence and vanity of women but of “people,” and the lyrics and dialogue have been course-corrected into a lesson about the loyalty and respect that we all owe our “mates” — not our “husbands.”

All of which feels just … fine. What’s interesting about this Kiss Me, Kate’s context consciousness is that its adjustments are both good, arguably downright necessary ideas, and not really show-savers. I’m happy not to listen to O’Hara sing about placing her hand beneath her husband’s foot, but the subtle level-up in gender politics at the show’s conclusion doesn’t actually stop the whole thing from feeling like an aesthetic time capsule. And aesthetics can usurp politics. From David Rockwell’s picturesque painted drops to Jeff Mahshie’s creaseless blend of mid-century glam and Technicolor faux-Renaissance pageantry; from the prancing chorus boys and the chorus girls with unblinking smiles and miles of leg to the amusingly trope-y rolling ladders and hampers that actors-playing-stagehands keep trundling in for the sole purpose of giving one of these girls or boys something to perch on — the show looks like the 1940s, smells like the 1940s, sounds like the 1940s. (Its design and production teams are, notably, overwhelmingly male. Personally, I’m less interested in a moratorium on tricky revivals than I am in some vast variation in who’s behind the scenes envisioning the work.) And while much of Porter’s wit still sparkles, some really doesn’t. Fred-Petruchio’s macho lament “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” feels like “Mambo No. 5” in tights, and “From This Moment On,” a strident duet between Lilli and her totally square (and totally sexist) fiancé, General Harrison Howell (Terence Archie), reads like exactly what it is — a song from another Cole Porter show, unnecessarily shoehorned into Act Two during the 1953 revival.

Likewise, the Spewacks’ book sometimes lands its vaudevillian patter and sometimes falls flat: “I told Mr. Graham you went to the chiropodist,” tweets Stephanie Styles as the featherbrained ingenue Lois Lane to her beau and co-star Bill Calhoun (Corbin Bleu), who’s missed rehearsal for a craps game. His reply: “I went to the cleaners.” Ba-dum-womp. There’s no way to take the genre out of this stuff, so the only choice is to go whole hog, and Ellis isn’t actually pushing the broad, wise-cracky comedy to its full potential. Songs like “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” — a pinnacle of punny delight and blithe narrative nonsense sung by two cheerful gangsters (John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams) who’ve shown up to put the screws on Fred — are good fun without being great fun. And both “I Hate Men” — a ball-buster for Lilli-Katherine­ — and Lois’s coquettish confessional “Always True to You in My Fashion” feel strong without feeling very sharp. O’Hara and Styles both sound phenomenal, but there’s nuance lacking in the characters — especially Lois, who comes across as a glorious flibbertigibbet and nothing more. There could be more: for comparison, see Ali Stroker’s recent rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” in Oklahoma. The songs are analogous and easy to play for surface charm, but Stroker’s Ado Annie came across as wily and voracious, sexually unapologetic underneath the ditziness.

In a flat-out farce, it doesn’t really matter if the characters are written deeply or truthfully because the whole affair is functioning at the speed of fun — velocity is more important than emotional logic. But Kiss Me, Kate wants to be something a little more human than pure farce. It wants to be romantic comedy, and for that, we’ve got to feel more of the connective tissue between characters than we do here. O’Hara’s rendition of the plaintive, soaring torch song “So in Love” is enough, in any context, to provoke full-body goosebumps, but when Chase gets around to reprising it near the end of the show, while he too sounds great, the song itself feels unearned. Something in the performances has got to convince us that Lilli and Fred are, despite everything, inexorably meant for each other — the light-as-angel-food-cake script’s not gonna do it — but here, there’s a pathos and a depth of connection missing. Chase is the right kind of charismatic — and game as hell — and O’Hara has poise for days, but somehow when they’re together their chemistry comes in sparks but not in heat waves. It’s a shame, since it’s always seemed to me that they’re what we should be thinking of at the top of Act Two, when the ensemble busts out in the otherwise totally-unhinged-from-plot dance-a-thon “Too Darn Hot.”

That dance, though, is a choreographic coup, as is Bleu’s star turn in “Bianca” — where he goes full subway showtime and tap dances on the ceiling — and, most especially, “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” Here, inside the play-within-the-play, Kiss Me, Kate’s mix of parody and sublime absurdity feels the most alive. (Even with all of Shrew’s nastiness, Porter and the Spewacks still do their best work when they’ve got Shakespeare to rifle through and riff on with gleeful abandon.) As Style’s Bianca juggles the hilariously peacocking proposals of three suitors — including Bleu as Lucentio and the fabulous dancers Will Burton and Rick Faugno as his rivals — the show scores its first comic touchdown. It’s a brilliant, no-holds-barred (no-holds-Bard?) number — flush with both virtuosity and lascivious silliness — and it gives the whole production a jolt of jubilant adrenaline that sustains it for quite a while.

Ellis has put an extremely classically pretty Kiss Me, Kate onstage, a show that’s ripe with stratospheric talent and is, in its best moments, splashily fun to watch. But despite the fact that the play was Porter’s attempt to follow in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s footsteps by writing a musical that fully integrated its songs and its narrative, this revival can’t help feeling like a revue, a nostalgic collection of hits with a skeleton that’s starting to get osteoporosis. It’s got big, energetic highs, and there’s just not enough depth to string them together, which leaves the production looking much like its dashing leading man, who flashes a megawatt smile at us and feels like a handsome fossil.

Kiss Me, Kate is at Studio 54.

Theater Review: Can Kiss Me, Kate Survive a 2019 Gaze?