THEATER REVIEW (New York Times)
“Kiss Me Kate”: Spirit Still True (in Its Fashion)
By BEN BRANTLEY
Forget about turkey for the moment, both the kind that's eaten for Thanksgiving and the kind that closes on Broadway. It is ham that's being served, without apology
and with lots of relish, in the mouthwatering new revival of "Kiss Me, Kate," Cole Porter's sybarite's delight of a musical about battling egos in show business.
As presented by a preening cast led by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, who wear a spotlight as though it were a dressing gown and vice versa, this "Kate
," which opened last night at the Martin Beck Theater, proves that ham can indeed make a banquet if the spices are zesty enough.
Avoiding the attitudes that are anathema to lively revivals of vintage musicals -- reverence and condescension -- the director Michael Blakemore and the choreographer Kathleen Marshall have shaped a show
that is broad, brazen, often shameless and finally irresistible. The production, which doesn't seem to have a thought in its giddy head beyond entertaining us as
much as it's entertaining itself, feels like one long ear-to-ear grin.
It had been looking recently as though some Cromwellian moratorium had been placed on musicals that existed purely to please, what with shows leaning toward either
the robotic (both "The Lion King" and "Saturday Night Fever" seem to be looking, in different ways, to a time in which human actors will be unnecessary) or the solemnly
preachy ("Ragtime," "Parade"). But following on the flying heels of this season's "Contact," Susan Stroman's blissful
paean to dance as a life force, "Kiss Me, Kate" asserts that there is still a place for sophisticated, grown-up fun in the New York theater.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Brushing up their Shakespeare: from left, Michael Berresse, Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell
and Amy Spanger in the revival of the Cole Porter musical "Kiss Me Kate."
Not that this "Kate" is a groundbreaker like "Contact," with its choreographic narrative, or the revival of "Chicago," with its glittering minimalist production. Even
in 1948, when the show opened, few reviews made claims for "Kate" as a masterpiece of innovation, despite the cleverness of its two-tiered structure, which parallels
a Broadway-bound performance in Baltimore of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" with the backstage love-hate affair of its stars.
"All you can say for 'Kiss Me, Kate' is that it is terribly enjoyable," wrote Brooks Atkinson, the critic for The New York Times, who felt the musical was unlikely to join the
immortal ranks of revolutionary works like "Show Boat" and "Oklahoma!" The Critics' Circle Award that season went to "South Pacific," a show with a social conscience
that was in the "organic" tradition of "Oklahoma!"
Yet "Kiss Me, Kate" turns out to have staying power in ways that other "terribly enjoyable" musicals from the first half of the century ("The Boys From Syracuse," for
example, and even "Annie Get Your Gun") have not. It's not just its top-drawer Porter score, which ranges from the luxurious minor-key masochism of "So in Love" to the
double-entendre-laden bounciness of "Always True to You (in My Fashion)."
"Kiss Me, Kate" also wallows happily in the romance of actors as an enchanting, infuriating breed apart, self-created, self-worshiping gods on their own Olympus.
After all, Sam and Bella Spewack's book, which has been tweaked here and there in ways that never betray the show's original spirit, was partly inspired by the highly
dramatic behavior of the American theater's married monarchs, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. And there are few things an actor enjoys more than playing an actor who behaves badly beautifully.
This sensibility is conveyed not only by the evening's splendidly robust leads, Mitchell and Ms. Mazzie as the tantrum-prone divorced couple who are reunited as
scrapping co-stars in "Shrew"; it also filters into every character part. And when two Damon Runyonesque gangsters (gloriously embodied by Lee Wilkof and
Michael Mulheren) suddenly find themselves, for arcane reasons of plot, onstage and in costume in the play within the play, you can see them getting drunk on limelight. That intoxication is what the show celebrates.
Blakemore and Ms. Marshall channel actorly narcissism into a steady stream of high spirits, even through long stretches of (deliberately) awkwardly delivered Shakespeare and some jokes that frankly fall flat. Those
who know "Kiss Me, Kate" only from the stilted 1953 movie version may be startled by the raw vitality on tap here. While the production definitely comes from another
time, it also turns the past into a vital present.
The perspective is beautifully reflected in the fine contributions of Robin Wagner (sets), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting), which create a sumptuously colored palette that somehow
seems tinged with a hint of sepia, suggestive of hand-tinted photographs. Wagner's big, bravura designs, which shift seamlessly between the Elizabethan settings
for "The Taming of the Shrew" and the glamorously gritty behind-the-scenes world of a Baltimore theater, never overpower the people who inhabit them.
The stage has been carefully conceived as a showcase for showing off. That high-rising triple-level view of backstage stairs and walkways (which brings to mind the
David Merrick production of "42nd Street") is put to very specific choreographic use by a frighteningly agile performer named Michael Berresse, who scales it like a
human fly in the show's most inventive dance routine.
Such acrobatics are of a piece with the overall tone of "Kiss Me, Kate," which never shrinks from the overstated gesture. Mugging, clowning, overemoting and operatic
vocal embellishments have all been encouraged, yet only rarely do these things slip into sloppiness.
The expansive performance style, of a silly looseness contained by theatrical discipline, perfectly matches the prankster aspect of Porter's songs, with their impish
satire of familiar forms (as in the Viennese waltz "Wunderbar") and outrageous innuendoes and rhymes. (Who else would team "Sanka" with "Bianca"?)
The voluptuous Ms. Mazzie, who verged on statue stiffness in her roles in "Passion" and "Ragtime," unbends in delicious ways here. As Lilli Vanessi, the
stage diva turned movie diva now making a stage comeback (Hollywood got fed up with her hysterics), she is as much a theatrical caricature as a Hirschfeld sketch,
drawn in big, looping lines that capture the essence of a real personality.
She flirts perilously with grotesqueness, making faces that turn her marmoreal beauty into splenetic ugliness. Her outlandishly entertaining take on that great exercise
in animosity, "I Hate Men," which here includes a vivid simulation of giving birth, goes over the top, for sure. But it doesn't go out of control. And when Ms. Mazzie
needs to switch to a lyric sincerity, for "So in Love" and "I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple," her soprano shimmers like polished silver.
As the rakish actor-manager Fred Graham, Mitchell, the original Coalhouse Walker of "Ragtime" and the womanizing record mogul in the Encores concert version
of "Do Re Mi," confirms his status as a rarity in American theater these days: a bona fide musical matinee idol with a sly sense of humor. It took him about 20 minutes
to grow into his full presence the night I saw him; but once he did, he was unstoppable.
His command of the trickier elements of Porter diction, as in the multilingually rhymed "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?," is impeccable. And when he stands center stage
in midsong, flexing his majestic baritone while his arms reach for the heavens, he seems to enfold the whole audience into an embrace as generous as it is self-admiring.
It seems fitting that a backstage musical should have its fresh young star in the making, and this production's comes in the intensely centered person of Amy Spanger,
who plays Lois Lane, the saucy cabaret performer making her theatrical debut as Bianca in "Shrew." She gets three of the evening's best songs ("Why Can't You Behave?,"
"Tom, Dick or Harry" and "Always True to You"), and she lands each of them with a sharp-edged sensuality that turns her gold-digging archetype into something newly minted.
Ms. Marshall, who emerged as a choreographer to watch with her work for the Encores series at City Center, brings a crisp and flavorful wit to the novelty numbers
"We Open in Venice" and "Tom, Dick or Harry." Her Agnes de Mille-style ensemble sequence, "Too Darn Hot," led by the engaging Stanley Wayne Matthis, though a show
-stopper, seemed to me a tad protracted. And I wish that she and Blakemore could have brought more vigor and focus to the evening's first number, "Another Op'nin'
Another Show," which is better in concept than execution and scarcely prepares us for the treasures that lie ahead.
Nonetheless, this "Kate" is definitely more than the sum of its parts. The individual numbers and performances don't all have the high sheen that, say, those in the
revival of "Chicago" had when it first opened. But it possesses a wonderfully heady momentum that doesn't let up, and it is to the show's credit that you remember it
less for individual, heightened moments than as one exhilarating whoosh.
Well, there is one particular sequence that is now forever pasted in my memory. That's when Wilkof and Mulheren, as a couple of hoods who have been hanging around
backstage to collect on a gambling debt, deliver their farewell song before a drop curtain.
That song is "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," a bawdy guide to using scholarly references for picking up women, and these gentlemen sell it with priceless deadpan
panache. As they metamorphose from mere thugs into gleeful (if still grim-faced) vaudevillians, it becomes clear just how potent a virus the theater bug is. By that time,
of course, the audience has already been thoroughly infected.
'KISS ME, KATE'
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter; book by Sam and Bella Spewack; directed by Michael Blakemore; musical direction by Paul Gemignani; choreography by Kathleen Marshall; sets by Robin Wagner; costumes by Martin
Pakledinaz; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Tony Meola; orchestrations by Don Sebesky; dance arrangements by David Chase; fight direction by B.H. Barry; wigs by Paul Huntley; production supervision by
Steven Zweigbaum; production manager, Arthur Siccardi; associate choreographer, Rob Ashford; associate producers, Richard Godwin and Edwin W. Schloss; general management, 101 Productions Ltd. Presented by Roger
Berlind and Roger Horchow. At the Martin Beck Theater, 302 West 45th Street, Manhattan.
WITH: Brian Stokes Mitchell (Fred Graham and Petruchio), Marin Mazzie (Lilli Vanessi and Katharine), Amy Spanger (Lois Lane and Bianca), Michael Berresse (Bill Calhoun
and Lucentio), John Horton (Harry Trevor and Baptista), Adriane Lenox (Hattie), Stanley Wayne Mathis (Paul), Michael Mulheren (Second Man), Lee Wilkof (First Man) and Ron Holgate (Harrison Howell).