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March 24, 2019

REVIEW: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ on Broadway makes for a pleasurable evening in the company of seasoned theater pros

March 15, 2019
The cast of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “Kiss Me, Kate.” (Joan Marcus)

Scott Ellis, whose body of work reveals him to be a softie, knows better than any other Broadway director how to key into the inner emotional lives of theater people. And he’s also keenly aware that, these days, the less the 1948 musical “Kiss Me Kate” has to do with William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” its problematic source material, the better for everybody.

Sure, “I Hate Men” still plays, but there’s really no need to try and milk awkward laughs from gender-based coercion when the list of Cole Porter musical numbers in the program includes the self-protected likes of “Wunderbar,” “So in Love” and “Too Darn Hot.”

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Right from the opening number, you can see where Ellis is going with what turns out to be a very pleasurable and inclusive evening in the company of a plethora of seasoned professionals whether that’s the great Paul Gemignani conducting the orchestra occupying the boxes on either side of the stage at Studio 54, or choreographer Warren Carlyle’s clutch of seasoned hoofers with senses of humor to match their agility.

The kick-off is “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” of course. It’s usually staged either as a quotidian occurrence — as in, another day at work — or as a joyful and chipper kind of occasion, the beginning of the next party.

But Ellis, building on the strengths of his star, Kelli O’Hara, treats the number as an emotional experience, filled with O’Hara’s signature sense of wonder, her pitch-perfect ability to convey a kind of existential gravitas, to make you feel like you’ve never heard that song sung with such existential freight. It’s an unusual start to a musical comedy, but it’s shrewd and it works, especially since that creaky Sam and Bella Spewack book has plenty of pitfalls to worry the woke.

And if O’Hara gets to dominate the opener, then Carlyle’s truly talented ensemble has all the focus in “Too Darn Hot,” which is given a gorgeous narrative treatment, rooted in another truth about the business — which is that some of the best work a company does is performed on breaks or at parties, or at understudy rehearsals. You know, places you never normally get to see.

Here, it feels like you do. I’ve seen funnier, freer revivals of “Kiss Me Kate,” mostly staged in more amusing or anarchic times; the revival’s weakness, I think, is a lack of comfort with improvisational possibility. But I’ve never been more moved by this title.

David Rockwell’s set — as good as it gets for this show right now — manages, all at once, to be the right backdrop for all that weepy stuff, to pay homage to the multi-door world in which farces thrive and, more subtly, not to drown out all what clearly was conceived as an intimate show.

It’s also a production where it feels natural for the cast to affectionately call out “Paul” to Gemignani, whose orchestra sounds a lot like listening to a retro cast recording with one pair of stereo speakers, one of each side of your armchair. It’s really cool and, of course, it plays to the show’s strengths.

O’Hara bats around Will Chase, her co-star, with enough force that you know who is in charge here, and that would be Lili Vanessi, not Fred Graham, the actor/manager playing Petruchio in the show within a show. Chase is a very savvy lead, not least because he knows what not to do, which is just as important as what he actually does.

As the comic leads, Corbin Bleu and Stephanie Styles ooze with enough zesty energy and genuine talent that you sense that Ellis is exploring a change of generation here — a moment, like this moment, when there was a lot of itching to pick up the self-involved stars who bicker as they run the joint and deposit them on the streets of Baltimore. And then take over their jobs.

Luckily, performers at the Roundabout Theatre Company know that you also have to respect tradition. And craft, kids, craft. Just like what you see here.

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