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A CurtainUp Review
Kiss Me Kate"

Of course, I'm awfully glad that Mother had to marry Father,/ But I hate men.
— a line from one of the innumerable show-stoppers in the ever "wunderbar" Kiss Me Kate.
Kelli O'Hara
Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The crowd of New York City school kids who filled the balcony of Studio 54 at the matinee of Kiss Me Kate that I attended can now add the internationally familiar German word "Wunderbar" to their vocabulary. While these youngsters have found their own style of "wunderbar" musical heaven in shows like Be More Chill, the Roundabout's latest Kiss Me Kate gives them a glimpse of why the 1940s have been dubbed the golden age of musicals.

Terrifically performed and staged as this revival is, the kids are more than likely to now see that there is indeed something quite "wunderbar" about this show. The play-within-a-play book, non-stop catchy tunes loaded with vivid dance opportunities make it great fun to this day— whether you're a teen, millennial, thirty-plus adult, or a senior citizen who probably saw the 1948 debut.

The current incarnation of one of the most golden of the golden era's musicals sent me on one of my occasional imaginary visits to that heavenly home for the theater world's Greats. Sure enough, my imagination led me to Cole Porter and Will Shakespeare in the recreation center where, courtesy of some Google tech wizard, they were watching director Scott Ellis's new take on the ingenious marriage of Porter's witty songs and the Bard's Shrew.

Did they think Ellis made it sizzle yet again? Indeed yes. It would not be surprising for the Bard to generously tell Porter "You sure knew how to write show stoppers" and the debonair Porter graciously returning the compliment with "well, your Taming of the Shrew triggered my musical muse to write a score for great singers and dancers to strut their stuff within that clever play within a musical version of your The Taming of the Shrew.

The plot driving the Shakespeare source play for Kiss Me Kate has of course always been considered problematic, revolving as it does around a high spirited woman capitulating to male superiority. And yet the Shrew has continued to be produced. In fact, the various ways directors have dealt the sexism issue — sometimes just letting Katharine wink behind Petruchio's back in her famous advice to other wives speech, at times with drastic new takes like the late Roger Reese's witty re-framing device at Williamstown or Phyllida Lloyd's all female version in Central Park . Whether, minor or major, these attempts to deal with the male chauvinist issue more than ever made a case for Shakespeare's unending adaptability.

Of course, the male-female relationship problem didn't just go away in the Spewack-Porter musical. However, by the time Patricia Morrison's Katrina did kiss Alfred Drake's Petruchio in 1948, feminists were established enough to accept Kiss Me Kate as an amusing spoof and let themselves enjoy its deliciously hummable and danceable score.

So, to get back to my visit to that place in cyber heaven reserved for the likes of Shakespeare, Cole Porter to stream or otherwise watch what earthbound directors, choreographers and thespians are doing to keep the sizzle and oomph (another word for those kids in the balcony to add to their vocabulary). I wouldn't be surprised if both Will and Cole liked the way Amanda Green's additional material eased the most glaring sexist business without a major overhaul, and that they liked everything else about this revival as much as I did. With that in mind, let me move on to my own reasons for not just liking but loving this Kiss Me Kate.
Having seen several Kiss Me Kates, including the last Broadway revival starring the late Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell, I expect any surprises in the plot's cross-cuts between the backstage squabbling of Lili Vanessi and Fred Graham (loosely based on the famous thespians Lynne Fontaine and Alfred Lunt) and scenes from a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. And even first-time viewers will quickly realize that though divorced and with Lili engaged to a rich military man, that both are still "So In Love." with Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase to portray both Lili and Fred and their on-stage counterparts Katharine and Petruchio, this two-tiered story is thrillingly fresh and new. Director Ellis downplay their bickering and focus on their musical reminiscences and thus give full rein to O'Hara's gorgeous soprano and ability to effortlessly scale some of Porter's trills. Will Chase proves that Fred's singing works just fine for a tenor as a baritone.

Another new and thrilling element is the way the sensational "Another Op'nin, Another Show" works as a sensational overture that introduces the entire cast. It's no understatement to say that the entire cast is sensational. the sub-plot's other couple, Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun (Stephanie Styles and Corbin Bleu) to the two gangsters (John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams) climaxing their task of keeping Lili from leaving the show with their famous "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" duet. True to the show-must-go-on mantra, Christine Cornish Smith validated the importance of having a well-prepared, talented understudy at the ready, as she was when Styles got sick just before the matinee I attended. Smith was outstanding in the show- stopping solo "Always True To You Darling (In My Fashion)" as well as the "why Can't You Behave" and "Tom,Dick and Harry" numbers.

The stunningly choreographed second act opening number "Too Damn Hot" (Photo: Joan Marcus)
To add to the special oomph and sizzle, there's the choreography, set and design work to support and enhance the performances and Mr. Ellis's modern screwball comedy story telling style. Warren Carlyle's incredible choreography has the audience at times gasp at the nimble-footed dancers' leaps and slides. The advances in sophisticated stage settings is reflected David Rockwell's diverse set that shifts from an atmospheric three-level backstage area, to Lily and Fred's dressing rooms, and colorful painted drops for the "Shrew" scenes in Padua. Jeff Mashie's costumes feature authentic 1940s styles, skimpier ones for the sexy high energy dances as well as colorful Renaissance outfits. The excellent design team also features perfect lighting and sound accents by Donald Holder and Brian Ronan.

A final bravo about this Kiss Me Kate's dealing with the more offensive aspects of the Lily-Fred/Katherine-Petruchio relationship. Mr. Ellis has eliminated the famous but infamous spanking scene, directed O'Hara to be a more feisty Katharine and Fred vulnerable enough to capitulate like her to those "So In Love" feelings. As for Amanda Green's additional material. While some revivals of classic musicals test purists tolerance for drastic reinterpretations, Green has taken the approach of a book editor who gently eliminates or alters a line here and there. Thus Katharine's advice to the women has her being ashamed that people (rather than women) are so simple. And her lecture recommends love and tolerance instead of control and submission for peaceful rather than war-like relationships. On the other hand, to maintain the historic authenticity, she's kept true to the period references to the Kinsey report Lili's fiance's General MacArthur like comments about Nixon and Truman.
To conclude, this Kiss Me Kate is just new-fangled and "more chill" enough to be truly "Wunderbar"! Highly recommended for 9 to 90-year-olds.

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Another Op'nin' Another Show - The Company
  • Why Can't You Behave- Loisand Bill li>
  • Wunderbar -Fred and Lilli
  • So in Love - Lilli
  • We Open in Venice - Katharine, Petruchio, Lucentio and Bianca
  • Tom, Dick or Harry - Bianca, Lucentio, Gremioand Hortensio
  • I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua - Petruchio and The Men
  • I Hate Men - Katharine
  • Were Thine That Special Face - Petruchio
  • Cantiamo D'Amore - Ensemble
  • Kiss Me, Kate - Petruchio, Katharine and Company
Act Two
  • Entr'Acte - Orchestra
  • Too Darn Hot - Paul, Bill, Hattie and Ensemble
  • Where Is the Life That Late I Led?- Petruchio
  • Always True to You (In My Fashion)- Lois
  • From This Moment On -Harrison Howell and Lilli Bianca -Bill and Ensemble
  • So in Love (Reprise) - Fred
  • Brush Up Your Shakespeare-First Man, Second Man
  • Pavane- Bianca, Lucretio and Ensemble
  • I Am Ashamed That People Are So Simple - Katharine
  • Kiss Me, Kate (Reprise) - Petruchio,/ Katharine and Company

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Kiss Me, Kate
Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Bella Spewack, Sam Spewack
Based on The Taming of the Shrew.
Directed by Scott Ellis

Cast: Kelli O'Hara as Lily/Katarina and Will Chase as Fred/Petruchio; Corbin Bleu as Lucentio/Bill Calhoun, Terence Archie as Harrison Howell, Mel Johnson Jr. as Harry Trevor/Baptista, Stephanie Styles as Lois Lane/Bianca, Adrienne Walker as Hattie, Lance Coadie Williams as Gangster (Second Man) and John Pankow as Gangster (First Man)

Choreography by Warren Carlyle
Sets: David Rockwell
Costumes: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting: Donald Holder
Sound: Brian Ronan
Hair & Wigs: David Brian Brown
Orchestrations:Larry Hochman
Dance Arrangement:David Chase
Additional material: Amanda Green
Production Stage Manager: Jeffrey Rodriguez
Stage Manager: Larry Smiglews
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including 1 intermission
Studio 54 254 W 54th St
From 2/14/19; opening 3/14/19; closing 6/02/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/20/19 press matinee

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