‘Kiss Me Kate’ review: Misguided revival of a classic musical comedy

Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase star as bickering exes in Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate."
Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase star as bickering exes in Cole Porter’s "Kiss Me, Kate." Photo Credit: Varela Media

‘Kiss Me, Kate’ runs through June 2 at Studio 54. 254 W. 54th St., roundabouttheatre.org.

If you listen closely, you may notice that Cole Porter’s musical comedy masterpiece “Kiss Me, Kate” advertises its very own suggested theater review. According to one character, “Kiss Me, Kate” (or at least the version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” being performed within the backstage musical) is “entertaining, vivacious and calculated to please the discriminating theatergoer.”

Theatergoers surely felt that way about the original 1948 Broadway production (which won the first-ever Tony for Best Musical) — not to mention the smashing 1999 Broadway revival starring Brian Stokes Mitchell as Fred Graham/Petruchio and Marin Mazzie (who died recently due to ovarian cancer) as Lilli Vanessi/Katharine.

Someone who is completely unfamiliar with “Kiss Me, Kate” (including its absolutely glorious score and raucous comic plotting) may very well find the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new Broadway revival starring Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase to be (to use the words of book-writers Sam and Bella Spewack) “entertaining, vivacious and calculated to please the discriminating theatergoer.”

But speaking as someone who has attended many prior productions and is well familiar with its numerous audio and video recordings (including the overblown 1953 MGM film and a 1958 TV adaptation with the original leads Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison), the Roundabout’s “Kiss Me, Kate” (directed by Roundabout veteran Scott Ellis) strikes me as an unnecessary, underwhelming and miscast revival.

Because Roundabout incorporates the heavy edits made to the script and score for the 1999 production, the Roundabout revival resembles a pale imitation of the 1999 production that seems to have come straight out of the freezer. Paul Gemignani, the music director of the 1999 revival, also conducts this production, but while using duller orchestrations.

The most notable changes of this production lie in the “additional material” by writer-lyricist Amanda Green, who has attempted to tame and tone down its divisive “Taming of the Shrew” elements for a contemporary audience. For instance, Petruchio no longer spanks Katharine.

Katharine’s final speech (set to Porter’s music) has also been made gender neutral. “I am ashamed that women are so simple” has become “I am ashamed that people are so simple.” “So wife, hold your temper” has become “So mates, hold your temper.”

These textual changes (although puzzling) are not necessarily detrimental, but they reveal the extent to which Roundabout is unsure of how to produce or interpret “Kiss Me, Kate” today, which further lends to the feeling of it being an utterly pointless revival.

Taking on Lili/Katharine marks a clear attempt by O’Hara (who is identified with serious musicals, both classic and contemporary) to branch out into musical comedy, but she appears tentative with the broad, larger-than-life antics required of the role. That being said, her pristine soprano voice is used to superb effect in the romantic ballad “So in Love,” and she looks beautiful, resembling Grace Kelly.

Similarly, Will Chase is a veteran of rock musicals trying to branch out into more traditional material. Like O’Hara, Chase is limited in his comic abilities, but he manages to give a relatively decent performance.

On the other hand, Corbin Bleu (who appeared in the Roundabout’s production of “Holiday Inn”) and Stephanie Styles shine as the secondary couple Bill Calhoun/Lucentio and Lois Lane/Bianca, full of personality, sex appeal and dancing prowess.

Warren Carlyle’s dance choreography is mostly fine, but he unnecessarily descends to amateurish vulgarity with the numerous pelvic thrusts in “Tom, Dick or Harry.”

“Kiss Me, Kate” demonstrates the need for Roundabout to think more carefully when choosing its Broadway musical revivals. “Kiss Me, Kate” with O’Hara was a seemingly safe but unoriginal programming choice, not so different from Roundabout’s decisions to bring back its own revivals of “Cabaret” and “She Loves Me.”

On the other hand, Roundabout’s current Off-Broadway revival of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” is smart and emotionally wrenching. Had that been presented on Broadway instead of “Kate,” with the benefit of enhanced production values and a bigger cast, it might have been even better.

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