Kiss Me Kate:
With Wit and High Spirits, a Musical Wake-Up Kiss
By VINCENT CANBY
Though much admired,
Cole Porter is never mentioned as one of those innovators who forever changed the content or the direction of American musical comedy. He is seldom spoken of with the same reverence with which
we talk about Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, and especially the canonized Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Porter, who was writing shows from 1916 until 1958 (he died in 1964), had his share of hits, a lot of flops, but only one generally acknowledged classic, "Kiss Me, Kate,"
which opened on Broadway on Dec. 30, 1948.
Yet because he wrote so many songs that became standards (his flop shows were rich with them), he was never very far from the public's consciousness. Even today he hangs on, if mostly in hotel lounges in resort
cities and in elevators everywhere.
Porter wrote some of the most melodic, unsentimental and sardonic love songs of the 20th century ("Night and Day," "Just One of Those Things," "I Get a Kick Out of
You," among them), but he is most widely identified with delectable doubles-entendres in songs that, no matter when they were written, seem to anchor him forever in the pre-Crash 1920s.
That possibly more than anything else (except that he was born rich and then married a very rich woman) has always made him suspect among the more serious critics of theater. He was charming, which seemed slightly
disreputable as the Depression wore on toward World War II. He was also too much fun, or wanted to be, which was even more of a burden when he failed to deliver.
Look up Harold Clurman's piece about the original "Kiss Me, Kate" cast album, published in The Saturday Review of Literature in February 1949, in which the usually
astute critic calls the show's style "unpleasant," saying that it "combines references to Shakespeare with gangster vulgarity." Unpleasant was not a gutless word
in Clurman's vocabulary; it was a grave charge made by a man who valued manners not as etiquette but as part of the social contract. Manners are one of the ways by which we protect our intellectual heritage.
Fifty years ago, Clurman pretty much dismissed everything about the show. However, in a piece about the state of American musical theater that appeared in The New York Times in 1962, he had apparently
reassessed "Kiss Me, Kate." With an endearing blitheness that makes no reference to his earlier thoughts about the show, Clurman notes that the score "seems to improve with age."
Now, in the director Michael Blakemore's fine, exuberant revival at the Martin Beck Theater, "Kiss Me, Kate" is again revealed to be what it has always been: an elegant
, nimble dream of a show, one of the rare perfect achievements of the American musical theater.
Let's not get bogged down about what constitutes "importance" on the stage or, for that matter, "seriousness." It isn't the subject matter that defines a
show but the quality and truth of whatever world that is evoked.
In "Kiss Me, Kate," the wit and extreme high spirits of the music, the lyrics, the choreography and the performances have a way of deepening our sense of
connection to life itself. It is thus an important, serious show. More relevant: it is grandly entertaining. In this case it even survives a couple of wrongheaded production
decisions that, if the show were less solidly constructed, might do fatal harm.
"Kiss Me, Kate" has the form of a backstage musical about the Baltimore tryout of a musical version of "The Taming of the Shrew," which becomes both an
appreciation of "The Shrew" and an appropriation of it. Scenes from the contemporary story, about the show's battling, egomaniacal co-stars, are interwoven with those
from "The Shrew" in such a way that each story carries the other forward.
Wisely, no attempt has been made to update the original Sam and Bella Spewack book. It is still set in June 1948, three years after the end of World War II and, though we
didn't know it at the time, two years before the start of the Korean War.
In retrospect, it was a brief, halcyon timeout. By keeping the 1948 period, Blakemore automatically evokes a sense of fable, which should help literal-minded nerds accept
other perfectly harmless ways in which plausibility is stretched. "Kiss Me, Kate" doesn't intend to be a realistic recollection of what taking a new show on the road was like 50 years ago.
Neither before nor after did Porter ever write so bountiful a score nor one so effortlessly integrated. He helps himself to lines from the play and expands them into
songs ("I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua," "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?," "I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple"). One of his most magical
inspirations is to take a throwaway reference, spoken by Bianca, give it a mock Shakespearean context and transform it into the ravishing beguine-tempo love song
"Were Thine That Special Face," sung by Petruchio.
There are songs you may well know by heart without being aware of it: "Tom, Dick or Harry," "Why Can't You Behave?" and "Always True to You (in My Fashion),"
complete with lyrics once suppressed by radio stations and Hollywood.
There are still others, classic but not easily categorized: the steamy "Too Darn Hot," which opens Act II, and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," in which two mobsters
instruct the audience in the practical value of a Shakespearean education.
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie look gorgeous, sing rapturously and behave with pricelessly comic self-interest as Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, the acting couple apparently based on Alfred Lunt and Lynn
Both were most recently seen in "Ragtime," he as Coalhouse Walker Jr., she as Mother, and both carry on here as if they had reached a promised land where, at
long last, they are allowed to have a little fun. There is energy and good humor in abundance as they switch between their roles as the infuriated lovers in Baltimore and as Petruchio and Katherine in Padua.
Amy Spanger, who plays the standard musical comedy chorine Lois Lane and, within "Shrew," Bianca, has several of the show's most enchanting numbers. She has
a good voice that includes the sort of sob that is both funny and sure-fire sweet, but she has not been helped by either the makeup people or, I assume, the director.
Her red hair is unbecoming, whatever its origin, and her dumb chorine's locutions fail to amuse at this very late date. Michael Berresse registers strongly as Bill, Lois'
chorus-boy lover, the guy who can't behave. He is also a dancer who honors the memory of Harold Lang, who originated the role, and gives Kathleen Marshall's new choreography its dynamic center.
There are two ways in which this production goes awry, quite radically in fact; though they don't affect the overall quality of the show, they have a cautionary effect.
Anyone planning this first Broadway revival of "Kiss Me, Kate" since the original production must, I realize, have been hard-pressed to visualize a show that wouldn't look
as if it were also stealing the glorious look of the original. Lemuel Ayers, the co-producer who also designed the sets and costumes for the 1948 production, created a
show of breathtaking beauty, of bright, voluptuous Mediterranean blues, lemony yellows and hot crimsons. It was a world that had the manner of perpetual carnival, of prancing harlequins and mountebanks, of preening
roosterlike males and demure maidens up to no good, "dispensing," in Porter's words, "fol-de-rol frivolity." The look of the show provided almost as much of a high as the music and lyrics.
Nobody is ever going to mistake this new "Kiss Me, Kate" for the original. The shapes and outlines created by Robin Wagner (scenic design) and Martin Pakledinaz
(costume design) are attractive enough, but the color palette is something else. Here is a Padua that suggests Pittsburgh before the air was cleaned up, a world that
has the eerie drained-color quality of a landscape seen during a partial eclipse of the sun. There are no reds, only rusts, yellows that seem to have faded to cream,
blues that have a hard, metallic surface sheen and pinks that seem to have gathered dust.
The other mistake: in an apparent effort to jazz up the work of the Spewacks, someone had the dreadful idea of turning the small role of Harrison Howell, the stuffy
Washington insider with whom Lilli threatens to elope, into a Gen. Douglas MacArthur type of Army egotist, complete with corncob pipe.
On top of that, the character, played by Ron Holgate, is given a duet to sing with Lilli, the song ("From This Moment On") being one that Porter originally wrote for "Out of This World" (1950).
Putting General MacArthur into this show sounds like a late-night inspiration that should have been thrown out in the morning.
It also focuses unwanted attention on a character whose only reason for being has to do with the plot. Asking him to sing a song, which, though great, has no relation to
the show, is the stuff of amateur theatricals. The only people old enough to recognize the character as MacArthur are likely to find it pointless, while younger members of the audience will just be baffled.
Hearing "From This Moment On" in "Kiss Me, Kate" does serve one purpose, however.
Because it obviously has nothing to do with anything that's going on, it makes you realize how beautifully integrated the rest of the score is.
George Sidney's 1953 MGM film adaptation of the show used the same song, but the movie was already such a mess that one song more or less couldn't make much difference.
Among the movie's other inspirations was to include a character named Cole Porter, played by Ron Randell, who has all the charm of a vacuum cleaner salesman.
The best thing about the movie is the Hermes Pan choreography. This would include the "From This Moment On" production number, which features a very young Bob
Fosse doing some of the same steps and creating the silhouette that would later identify his work on Broadway.