Kiss Me, Kate!, now playing at Studio 54, is filled with such astonishing music that the show could carry itself on its own two legs clear across the ocean. The fact that mere mortals are allowed to strut their stuff under the spread of its wings is incidental.
Well, perhaps a bit more than incidental. Beginning with Kelli O'Hara (Lilli Vanessi) who plays a prima donna with a heart of gold and a soft spot left behind by the man who got away - Fred Graham (Will Chase). I have read that Cole Porter based these two characters on the theatrical team of Lynne Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, who chewed the scenery in many a play for many a decade. The story is based on The Taming Of The Shrew and we all know how that turns out: she gives in.
But wait! there's more. Amanda Green has had her way with this script and in this version Lilli does not give in. She calls a truce, and does it on her own terms.
The tale has two trails - one with the "real life actors" and one following the musical version of Shrew. Each mirrors the other even to the point of sharing a philandering man with some seriously bad timing. In addition, there is the way too perky Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles) and her ardent and acrobatic, if financially unreliable, suitor Bill Calhoun (Corbin Bleu). Sprinkled over the whole thing is a swing ensemble that is itching to pop. The icing on the cake is a pair of Wise Guys (John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams) who are in the wrong place at the wrong time - but hey, why should that interfere with anything?
What works here is first and foremost Kelli O'Hara. O'Hara seems to have no limit to her range vocally or emotionally. She opens her mouth and rainbows come trilling out. Will Chase is also of fine voice, but begins further back in the pack. By the time he delivers the reprise of "So In Love," however, he is exactly where he needs to be.
What also works is the music itself - over and over and over again. Porter's music is iconic and lustrous - and who knew how many hits were packed into this show? "Another Op'nin, Another Show"; "Too Darn Hot"; "From This Moment On." At the first few notes of a few numbers the audience bursts into spontaneous applause because we are in love with this music.
What does not work is the overall connectivity of the scenes. Each feels like it is its own world, with nothing before it or after it, thus the production feels disjointed. The show-stopping number "Too Darn Hot" (led by James T. Lane who is only lacking wings to fly) jumps out of nowhere - flashes its wares and then disappears. As with the other dance numbers you get the feeling they are there to give the principal actors time to change costumes. What also doesn't work is that the choreography follows the predictable formula of acrobatic and majestic for the male dancers with the women being assigned stylish and sophisticated. Too bad the women, who are every bit as toned, do not get the chance to strut their stuff.
The final twist that many people will not notice is Kate's monologue. Instead of I am ashamed that women are so simple - we hear, I am ashamed that people are so simple. The sonnet morphs into a universal plea for peace, open hearts and trust.
As the saying goes: not a dry thigh in the house.
This is a jaunty piece of theatre that aims no higher than your heart and scores a direct hit.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"Purists may squawk - though similar changes have long since shown up in feminist productions of The Taming of the Shrew. For me, the adjustments, especially Ms. Green's and Ms. O'Hara's, are completely successful. They not only reorient the story as a warning to all sexes, but also provide a workaround for a musical that our cancel culture seemed ready to throw on the bonfire of the inanities. How nice to find Kiss Me, Kate! rescued from that fate: still speaking to us - or better yet, singing - from the not so buried past."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Whether she’s hitting high notes or swatting her male co-star, Kelli O’Hara — funny and fierce — is reason enough to see Kiss Me, Kate!"
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Post
"Without such changes, however, Kiss Me, Kate might not be revivable at all-and that would be a shame, since the Roundabout's production is often a delight. For one thing, it affords an opportunity to rehear Porter's score, which lists heavily toward witty-silly list songs but also includes the beautifully pining "So in Love" and the acidic "I Hate Men." And whatever heat has been tamped down in the central couple flares up elsewhere-most exuberantly, and appropriately, in the second-act opener, "Too Darn Hot," a pull-out-the-stops ensemble dance number that all but burns down the house."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"If the changes dampen some of the show's comedic vitality in order to make it palatable to contemporary sensibilities, so be it. There are corresponding losses and gains, too, in O'Hara's performance. One of America's most incandescent musical-theater stars, her default setting is elegance and sincerity, so the soupcon of campy self-intoxication that seems a requirement of the role is largely missing. This is not the harrumphing hysteric that audiences familiar with the show will remember."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"Director Scott Ellis' production doesn't try to make much sense of a narrative that includes Damon Runyon-style gangsters in a far-fetched subplot, and instead sticks with a playful spirit in the hopes that audiences will ride out the nonsense as long as the show delivers on entertainment. And it often does, especially when it dances to Warren Carlyle's choreography, whether it's in the frisky "Tom, Dick or Harry" or in the sizzling Act 2 opener "Too Darn Hot," featuring Corbin Bleu and James T. Lane in impressive solo turns."
Frank Rizzo for Variety