The sparkling revival of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate on Broadway (at Studio 54, through June 2) is glorious to watch, a sumptuous treat. But whatever gender controversies the musical, originally mounted in 1948, once provoked, whatever issues it raised about male control and female compliance, have been cheerfully erased.
As played by the excellent, Tony-winning Kelli O’Hara, Lilli, the celebrity actress coming to perform in a production of The Taming of The Shrew—Kiss Me, Kate’s play within a play—is “done” with men until the very end, where, completely inexplicably (to me at least), she is not. This Lilli Vanessi/Kate is untameable though not a shrew, and suddenly, weirdly very tameable. Does she bang her head off stage or something?
The Kiss Me, Kate of 2019 is more screwball comedy than sexist dinosaur, or an interrogation of the latter. If Carousel’s overt anti-female violence shocked you last season, or if the twist at the end of My Fair Lady was a nod to #MeToo debates, Kiss Me, Kate 2019 takes a swerve away from cultural confrontation.
Instead, O’Hara’s Kate literally kicks Will Chase’s Fred’s butt over and over again. She gets hoisted over a shoulder but doesn’t get spanked, he most surely does get bruises. She is nobody’s fool, nobody’s victim, but the show isn’t so much rewritten that she stands up to her suffocating husband-to-be, nor does it explain how and why she settles for what and who she settles for at the end.
Honestly, if you were coming to the musical fresh, for the first time, you might wonder why she decides between either of the men. She is leagues above them, she doesn‘t seem to need either of them or what compromised and lacking versions of respectful coupledom they have to offer. An old-fashioned musical cannot grant Lilli the choice this interpretation implies she has and owns (at least early on) so fiercely.
The composer-lyricist Amanda Green, who did the “delicate surgery” upon Porter’s lyrics and Sam and Bella Spewack’s book for this production of Kiss Me, Kate told Playbill, “The prism that we look through at relationships between men and women is different than the time it was written. I’m not re-inventing the wheel with Kiss Me, Kate…but we felt that it was our responsibility to see if there were changes we could make…You can’t erase it or pretend that 1949 (when it won the Tony Award for Best Musical) is 2019, but there are things that you can adjust to make her more of an equal.”
This is a conservative, conventional tweaking rather than audacious re-scaffolding of a classic, as in Bard Summerscape’s Oklahoma!, soon to open on Broadway and likely Kiss Me, Kate’s big competition in the best musical revival category at this year’s Tony Awards. The two are both thrilling and also very different in how they approach interpreting hallowed source material.
The appeal of Kiss, Me Kate is rooted in traditional Broadway. It’s lovely having Larry Hochman’s orchestrations played by musicians not in the pit but nestled in balconies on both sides of the stage. Witness Jeff Mahsie’s luxe, period-perfect costuming, Donald Holder’s atmospheric lighting, and David Rockwell’s wonderful sets—whether a vertical slice of backstage, with dressing rooms off stairways (perfect for dancing up and down), or the dank alley at the back of the theater where the performers lounge, smoke, flirt and—oh!—dance, dance, and dance to “Too Darn Hot,” led by James T. Lane’s Paul.
This Act Two opening sequence is acrobatic, balletic, and stunning; the kind of song and dance sequence (choreographed by Warren Carlyle and arranged by David Chase) that begins as a cool cruise-and-lilt and ends with the kind of propulsive energy and group of elasticized bodies that can burn holes in floors.
When O’Hara sings that excellent standard, “I Hate Men,” she does so with lethal, jaded side-eye, and the opening of doors to reveal one obnoxious collective male grouping after another within the colorful Taming of The Shrew sets.
O’Hara has the kind of shimmering, operatic voice that feels too big, too good, too luminous, for Broadway. But don’t get too misty-eyed; her coloratura is also satirized in the lovely moment when a songbird dies while in mortal combat with it. The director Scott Ellis runs a busy, bustling stage, with doors slamming and actors actorrr-ing all over the place. Lilli and Fred are reunited on the first anniversary of their divorce, with Fred dismissive of her as an Oscar nominee: “So was Rin Tin Tin.”
But they reach some peace, while singing the nostalgic ode to times past, ‘Wunderbar.’ Chase is a delicious slice of ham on and off stage, the archetypal actor roué made perfect for a Petruchio of his to wonder, in the litany of women he has known, “where is Rebecca, my Becki-weckio/Again, is she cruising that amusing Ponte Vecchio?”
The anti-Kate comedy is mild; her father, Baptista (Mel Johnson Jr.), wishes a man would "woo her, wed her, and bed her and rid my house of her,” but only with mild despair. The most memorable physical intimacy Lilli and Fred have is during ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ the song, at the end of Act One: after falling out over a misdirected note of passion, there is a furious blur of slap, strangle, wrestling, kicks, and the odd punch done as a private fight amid a Shrew song-and-dance sequence. Some of the blows like they hurt, and look at O’Hara’s face: this is not play-fighting for Kate.
The secondary romantic coupling of Bill Calhoun (Corbin Bleu) and Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles) has spark too; here, the challenge, which turns out to be no challenge, is to make a relationship work when fidelity is not a given. Styles’ ‘Always True To You In My Fashion’ and Bleu’s, ‘Bianca’ are the cheeriest ditties to love within an open relationship you will ever hear.
The music and dancing are lovely, but the story becomes increasingly puzzling with the entry of Lilli’s husband-to-be, Harrison Howell (a politico we know is doomed to fail), who wants Lilli as his pliant, doe-eyed wifey on the campaign trail.
Lilli doesn’t argue with this vision of her future, presumably because she is furious with Fred. But even that fury feels odd; more funny to watch than to analyze. Still stranger is her set of decisions over the two men at the very end. We simply don’t know why she decides to do what she does, even if it couldn’t be further from hating men and kicks to the backside.
How has Lilli resolved all her feelings towards Fred; how and why does she do what she does with Harrison?
We do not know. The little, bridging song she delivers mellifluously that offers a kind of answer has had its title and words changed from “I am Ashamed That Women are So Simple” to “I am Ashamed That People are So Simple.”
The lyrics to this are like a personal white flag, speaking of the good sense of teaching “our proud and stubborn hearts to love the best we can,” and then recommending putting your hand beneath the sole of your partner’s foot, which should hopefully make “him” feel ease.
Hmm, well, O’Hara doesn’t put her hand anywhere near Chase’s foot and there is no inference of happy self-subjugation in the final scene either. Just what makes one man right for Lilli? Is it just that he is less bad than the other, and that she knows him better? What a great choice (not).
“We have to have these characters feel current,” O’Hara told Playbill.
“With these tweaks,” Green added, “a 9-year-old girl seeing Kiss Me, Kate can be empowered by it.”
That may be true, but that 9-year-old, like an adult, may also be puzzled as to why Lilli (and Kate) eventually end up doing the most conventional things of all. They are both spirited, independent women not finally afforded independence, spiritual and otherwise. What isn’t said in Kiss Me, Kate by its leading lady is its greatest mystery of all.
So, watch then for the final look Lilli gives us, the audience, at the end. It is not one of swooning romantic victory, it is not one of resignation. It is more even, enigmatic, self-contained. The ‘shrew’ has not been tamed. She may have made a choice for now, and be biding her time.