Kiss Me Kate, the very first Best Musical Tony winner, is unarguably a terrific creation. Songs are memorable, clever, story-advancing, varied. Its farcical book delivers backstage romance and onstage Shakespeare, melding the two with panache.
For those of you unversed: Divorced actors, husband and wife Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, have come together in bonded animosity for a musical production he’s helming of Shakepeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. She’s ostensibly moved on to fiancé General Harrison Howell (Terence Archie in a thankless role), usually an innocuous southern gentleman, here an army general who siphons much too much focus, conceivably in an effort to contemporize the tale. (Dialogue concerning guns is blatantly out of place.)
Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase
Graham is wooing second banana/mercenary flirt, Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles), who plays Bianca. Lois, in turn, is being pursued by cast member Bill Calhoun (Corbin Bleu), a reprobate gambler who’s just signed a $10,000 IOU with Fred’s name. When two comic thugs (John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams) show up to collect, they’re tricked into keeping Lilli from walking out by appearing ignominiously onstage.
Roundabout’s revival features the splendiferous Kelli O’Hara whose voice is a national theater treasure. The charming performer is always sympathetic. That Director Scott Ellis’s take on the role of Lilli Vanessi replaces pithy diva qualities with gentility takes the edge off, however. O’Hara’s Kate is viably angry, though her kicks lack credible force, but Lilli, like Kate, should be formidable and is not.
As Lilli’s ex-husband, Fred Graham, now producer/director/costar of the show within a show, Will Chase sings his heart out. The actor has a fine voice. (Still, one can’t help but miss baritones that preceded him.) What he doesn’t possess is cocky masculinity making both Fred and Petruchio infuriating and irresistible. This is a flaw as O’Hara’s effortless femininity is not balanced by someone to whom she’d submit.
Will Burton, Rick Faugno, Stephanie Styles, Corbin Bleu
All I have to say about Stephanie Styles’ Broadway debut is that she’s cute and has a long note. Styles is no Jane Krakowski. The latter would’ve been sexy, mischievous fun. This young performer lacks sustaining vocals and femme fatale presence.
Corbin Bleu brings the house down with his dancing in “Too Darn Hot” and “Bianca,” but gives Bill no character to speak of.
The thugs are not broad enough to make anything humorous. That a number like “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (where’s the actual dancing?!) falls flat is a crying shame for those who have never seen it done well. (Rent the film.) Pankow and Williams don’t enunciate clearly and, as a result, jokes don’t land.
Brightness is an issue with this production. Not everyone has O’Hara’s skill. Songs are neither loud nor crisp enough to make performance shine. (Sound Design – Brian Ronan) David Rockwell’s Set which is terrific depicting backstage, literally pales for the show within the show when it should dazzle. Jeff Mahshie’s Costumes seem to have been executed by opposing tastes. Leads are often attractively attired, but women chorus members wear dull colors and unflattering style.
Donald Holder’s Lighting is spot on. Design creates an evocative opening, illuminates forward scenes while filling space to upper wings with star-like stage lights, and employs spots to best advantage.
Of the company, James T. Lane (Nat King Cole-like cottony vocal and swell dance moves) and Rick Faugno (terrific dancer, reminds one of the young Fosse) are stand-outs.
Director Scott Ellis (recognize the use of ladders?) moves his company well but misses the acerbic spirit and sweep of more successful productions, making it disappointing to those of us who have seen better. The opening takes too long to gel. The General is obtrusive.
Choreography by Warren Carlyle is robust and imaginative.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase; Corbin Bleu and Stephanie Styles
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Kiss Me Kate
Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Sam & Bella Spewak
Music Direction Paul Gemignani
Directed by Scott Ellis
254 West 54th Street
Through June 30, 2019