Kiss Me Kate reviews

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Stokes as Fred/Petruchio'Kiss Me, Kate' Is Wunderbar!

(Fintan O’Toole, New York Daily News)

KISS ME, KATE. Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Sam and Bella Spewack. With Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Amy Spanger, Michael Berresse, Adriane Lenox, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Lee Wilkof, Michael Mulheren. Sets by Robert Wagner. Musical direction by Paul Gemignani. Choreography by Kathleen Marshall. Directed by Michael Blakemore. At the Martin Beck. Tickets, $25-$80; (212) 239-6200.

n the way to the delicious revival of "Kiss Me, Kate," you pass the Theater District block just renamed after composer Cole Porter.

On the way home, you wonder why they didn't name the whole town after him.

This 1948 musical comedy starts with the well-known "Another Op'nin,' Another Show." But this apparent invitation to a run-of-the-mill event is just the first of the evening's delightful jokes.

Because "Kiss Me, Kate" is not just another show. Michael Blakemore's flawless production offers that most unusual of sensations: pure pleasure.

This is a show that takes us back to the golden age of the Broadway musical, when being simple didn't mean being stupid, and being lighthearted didn't mean being empty-headed.

"Kate" slips down so easily that you hardly notice what a complicated cocktail it is. It gets its kick from equal measures of three very different kinds of comedy: Shakespeare, slapstick and screwball.

Sam and Bella Spewack's book uses large chunks of "The Taming of the Shrew," but it manages to get around the naked sexism that has made that comedy almost unplayable in modern times. It does this by wrapping it up in a backstage drama, with actors performing a Baltimore tryout for a musical version of Shakespeare's original.

The Bard's shrew, Kate, is also the spoiled Hollywood diva Lilli Vanessi. The shrew-tamer Petruchio is also her former husband, egomaniacal actor-manager Fred Graham.

So "Kate" becomes a hall of mirrors in which the characters and the roles reflect each other. To sustain the comic illusion, the actors have to be as quick-witted as they are fast on their feet.

To meet this challenge, Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell and the rest of the cast adopt an ingenious and rarely used technique: that of being very, very good.

This is one of those exceptional productions in which the stars really do shine, the jokes are funny and the show-stoppers stop the show.

For all the glitz and glamour, the book and songs demand a curious intimacy from Mazzie and Mitchell. At one level, they have to be larger than life: His ego and her temper are almost monstrous.

But if that were all, they would be merely obnoxious. What we have to see is that these are people who bring out the best and the worst in each other. They are unstable chemicals that explode when they cannot bond.

The great strength of this "Kate" is that Mazzie and Mitchell are not just individually impressive. The sparks they knock off each other light up the whole show.

And there is so much to illuminate, because Porter's score is full of knockout numbers. Mazzie's "I Hate Men" and Mitchell's "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" would be the towering pinnacles of most shows. But Porter wrote songs that allow other members of the cast to reach those heights, too.

Adriane Lenox splits open "Another Op'nin,' Another Show" to reveal a soulful, bluesy heart. Stanley Wayne Mathis gives a cool, catlike feel to "Too Darn Hot." Amy Spanger turns from tramp to vamp in "Always True to You (in My Fashion)," proving that lust and laughter can co-exist. Michael Berresse transforms the weakest number in the show, "Bianca," with his vibrant, stunningly athletic dancing.

And Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren as the goons who are accidentally drawn into the cavalcade bring a perfect touch of obscenity to "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

Blakemore's production wrings every last drop of fun out of these terrific performers, and out of Kathleen Marshall's breathlessly inventive choreography, Robin Wagner's quietly clever sets and the full-blooded jazz of Paul Gemignani's musical direction.

It all adds up a "Kiss" so luscious and lusty that it leaves you weak in the knees.


Original Publication Date: 11/19/1999

 

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