Kiss Me Kate

The Martin Beck Theatre - 11/3/99

Reviewed by John Kenrick

I know it is considered unethical to post reviews before a show has officially opened, but I am making an exception to the rule to urge everyone to beat the crowds and grab seats to the new revival of Kiss Me Kate. After several less than breathtaking seasons, musical comedy is alive and kicking at the Martin Beck. When people like me say that we love Broadway musicals, this is what we are talking about!

It is no secret that Cole Porter's score and the book by Sam and Bella Spewack are pure gold, as they have been for over fifty years. This new production wisely leaves them essentially intact, with just a few minor but effective additions (well, one addition stinks, but we'll get to that later) and some delightfully fresh approaches to the staging. Director Michael Blakemore (Noises Off, City of Angels) has also made the wise decision to give equal legitimacy to the musical comedy material and the Shakespearean dialogue, so this Kate shines at all times.

The casting is a musical buff's dream. Ragtime alumni Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell are reunited as the battling former spouses opening a musical version of Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore. Mazzie's lush soprano and powerful personality are right on target, and she scores in the hilarious "I Hate Men" as well as the moving "So In Love." The role of Lilli can all too often come across as bitchy, but Mazzie makes her a human being.

Mitchell does the same for Fred, giving him a vulnerability that redeems his apparent egotism. As Petruchio, he positively radiates so much sex appeal that they had better add some asbestos lining to his costumes. He handles the incredible vocal demands of the role admirably, and his "Where Is the Life That Late I Led" stopped the show - although I do wish he would lose some of the forced physical shtick and let the lyric be funny on its own. Those who only know Mitchell and Mazzie from Ragtime may be surprised to find what deft musical comedians they are - what fun to see both make their long experience in the business pay such gloriously entertaining dividends.

In fact, nearly every number in Act II stopped the show. The entire ensemble, led by the sizzling Stanley Wayne Mathis, delivers a socko dance routine during "Too Darn Hot" that left the theatre roaring. Amy Spanger is delightful as chorine Lois Lane, but her "Always True to You (In My Fashion)" also tore the place apart. The role of Lilli's boyfriend Harrison Howell has been remodeled into a parody of Douglas MacArthur, and veteran performer Ron Holgate (1776's original Tony-winning Richard Henry Lee) does a riotous job, stopping things yet again with the interpolated "From This Moment On." As Bill, Michael Berresse turns the charming "Bianca" into a choreographic and gymnastic explosion. Just when you would think the audience was too pooped to care, on come Lee Wilkof (Little Shop's original Seymour) and Michael Mulhern (Titanic) to stop everything cold with a bang-on "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," trading their gangster fedoras for top hats and canes as the encores roll on and on. By the final curtain, the audience was on its feet literally screaming its approval - and you don't need three guesses to know that I was right in there with the loudest of them.

Robin Wagner's superb sets keep the action fluid and attractive without ever overwhelming the play, and Martin Pakledinaz's colorful costumes could not be more appropriate. Paul Gemignani, the finest musical director in the business, makes the most of Don Sebesky's fine new orchestrations - giving the score a fresh sound while staying quite faithful to Porter's original intentions. Although the orchestra sounded great, I think it insulting for the producers to charge a full $80 a seat when there are only sixteen pieces in the pit.

So what's different? Well, the overture and entre act are deleted, but a sort of mini-overture is worked into the newly extended "Another Op' nin' Another Show." "I Sing of Love" has been changed into "Cantiamo di Amore" - this is the one rotten addition I mentioned earlier. Originally performed "in one" (before a closed curtain, to allow a scene change), it is now a ludicrous full-set dance number where the men strip off the women's shoes and stockings and then throw them into a giant vat to stomp wine grapes. The audience laughed at this instead of with it - so I hope they reconsider and cut this one clunker to save time and embarrassment. It is delightful to have the aforementioned "From This Moment On" finally make it to Broadway forty nine years after it was cut from Porter's Out of This World (it was used in the1953 film version of Kate). Otherwise, every lyric in this beloved score is intact, including the encores and reprises.

So whatever the minor carps are, they don't matter much. This Kiss Me Kate is the kind of thing musical theatre lovers live for, exploding with joy and talent and . . . dare I say it . . . genuine intelligence and wit. It doesn't get much better than this! As one of the most dedicated Cole Porter fans alive, I think he would be very pleased with what's happening onstage at the Martin Beck. He'd be even more pleased with what is happening out in the audience, where people are once more relishing this timeless gem of a show. Go, enjoy, and don't be surprised if I am somewhere in the house catching it again - which I plan on doing as soon and as often as I possibly can.

Follow-up Review: October 2000

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