Spring was tardy this year, so if you are still suffering from seasonal affective disorder, you might try some therapeutic theater courtesy of the radiant revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” which is spreading high-summer sunshine at Studio 54. Showcasing the golden voice of one of Broadway’s bona fide treasures, Kelli O’Hara, who stars as the actress Lilli Vanessi opposite the terrific Will Chase, playing her ex-husband and current co-star, Fred Graham, the revival — Broadway’s first in two decades — is an effervescent throwback to the years when the musical theater was a reliable non-chemical antidepressant.
The production, directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, has even been scrubbed free of any trace of sourness that might be perceived today as offensive to women. Reacting to the widespread cultural changes sparked by the #MeToo movement, the show’s creative team has indulged in minor tinkering.
The onstage battle between Lilli and Fred, which takes place in the middle of a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew” in which they are appearing in Baltimore, now heavily favors Lilli — to the point that it would be more likely she than he who might be hauled up on assault charges. Amanda Green has supplied some dialogue softening the antagonism between the stars: They now wish each other good luck before the performance begins, for instance. And the climactic musical number, originally called “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple”— a lyric drawn, of course, directly from Shakespeare’s play — has now been rewritten to replace the word “women” with “people,” for starters, and to make the admonitions in the song gender-neutral.
The changes are certainly reasonable — and, frankly, I have always found the depictions of gender relationships in the Shakespeare play distasteful, no matter how hard directors try to soften or subvert them — but are they really necessary? Surely Broadway audiences attending a revival of a 1948 musical comedy drawing on a 16th-century comedy might be expected to recognize how the culture has changed.
But having dispensed with that unavoidable subject, let’s move on to the ample pleasures of the production, beginning with the sublime singing of O’Hara, whose soaring version of the brooding “So In Love” elevates the show to a high plane as soon as it arrives early in the first act. O’Hara’s classically trained soprano ranks among the most beautiful I’ve ever heard on Broadway, and it finds a sterling vehicle in the luscious Cole Porter score (arguably his best), even allowing her to show off her coloratura chops in a brief flirtation with a flute that feels like a parody of the mad scene in “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
O’Hara has excelled in portrayals of softer-hued heroines such as Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and Anna Leonowens in “The King and I.” Lilli, a Broadway star-turned-movie diva, has a sharper edge, brought out by the simmering conflict between her vestigial love for her ex and the daily irritations of working with him.
But while O’Hara’s unquenchably warm humanity infuses her performance at every turn — and she’s mostly dressed by costume designer Jeff Mahshie in virginal white — when she needs to turn on the hell-hath-no-fury feistiness, she delivers capably. After Lilli discovers, while onstage, that a bouquet from Fred was mistakenly delivered to her instead of her co-star Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles), O’Hara brings a seething comic bite to her humiliated rage, particularly when she fusses like a cat threatened with a bath as Fred merely tries to take her by the hand.
Chase’s performance goes, well, hand in hand with O’Hara’s non-histrionic approach. While Lilli and Fred can be played as hams both onstage and off, vying for the spotlight and the upper hand, Chase eases up on the preening — although he supplies an amusingly plummy accent — in favor of more gently taunting feints at Lilli and her new paramour, an Army general (rather stiffly played by Terence Archie).
And while some might miss the darker vocal timbre of the original Fred, Alfred Drake (or Brian Stokes Mitchell, who played the role in the also-excellent 1999 revival, opposite Marin Mazzie, a first-rate talent lost far too soon), Chase, a Broadway veteran and star of the television series “Nashville,” sings with a blooming vitality and exudes an easygoing virility.
The standout among the supporting cast is unquestionably Styles, delivering a confident — no, make that smashing — Broadway debut as the ever-on-the-make but fundamentally loyal Lois Lane (who plays Bianca in the show-within-the-show). While her speaking voice is a bright nasal squeak, Styles brings plenty of polished musicianship to her singing, and a bushelful of slyly demure wit to her performance.
As Bill Calhoun, the man Lois loves despite her straying eyes and his waywardness, Corbin Bleu, the “High School Musical” star who has made several appearances on Broadway, seems too wholesome for this feckless character, a ne’er-do-well who sets the plot in motion by signing Fred’s name to a gambling debt. Nevertheless, he’s a solid singer and dancer, and shines in an elaborate tap routine that enlivens his solo “Bianca” (perhaps the score’s only non-gem).
Carlyle’s choreography churns through a dazzling array of styles, with “Tom, Dick or Harry” showcasing both classical ballet and pure athleticism; an inventive grape-stomping routine for the ensemble dance “Cantiamo D’Amore” (OK, maybe the score has two non-gems); and plenty of period-apt social dances and tap routines. My only quibble would be the disappearance of Bill during Lois’s “Always True to You in My Fashion,” in which she indulges in some amusing shtick but loses sight of the lover she is ostensibly trying to endear herself to — and ends up, for some reason, straddling a wooden ladder.
Although “Kiss Me, Kate” moves at a frolicsome pace under Ellis’s direction, on sets by David Rockwell that move between period-style flats for the “Shrew” scenes and realistic designs for the play-without-the-play passages, there’s no avoiding that the book, by Sam and Bella Spewack, loses steam in the second act (even with the interpolated “From This Moment On”), which plays out more as a series of jumbled diversions before the romantic-clinch climax.
Still, at least one of those diversions, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” although illogically performed by gangsters who have been moonlighting for a mere day as thespians, is a surefire crowd-pleaser, with John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams delivering Porter’s cascading Shakespearean gags with vaudevillian panache.
That song, by the way, contains some lyrics that could raise hackles today (“Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus’”), as does, for that matter, “So in Love” (“So taunt me, and hurt me”), but they have been left intact. Revising a single song might be feasible, and even sensible, but attempting a wholesale rewrite of Cole Porter? That would be pure folly.
“Kiss Me, Kate” opened at Studio 54 on Thurs., March 13, 2019.
Creative: Book by Sam Spewack and Bella Spewack; Music by Cole Porter; Lyrics by Cole Porter; Music orchestrated by Larry Hochman; Additional Material by Amanda Green; Directed by Scott Ellis; Choreographed by Warren Carlyle; Scenic Design by David Rockwell; Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Brian Ronan.
Producer: Roundabout Theatre Company
Cast: Kelli O’Hara, Will Chase, Corbin Bleu, Terence Archie, Mel Johnson, Jr. , James T. Lane, Stephanie Styles, Adrienne Walker, Lance Coadie Williams, John Pankow, Darius Barnes, Preston Truman Boyd, Will Burton, Derrick Cobey, Jesmille Darbouze, Rick Faugno, Haley Fish, Tanya Haglund, Erica Mansfield, Marissa McGowan, Justin Prescott, Christine Cornish Smith, Sherisse Springer, Sam Strasfeld.