Kiss Me Kate and The Music Man revisited

Broadway, NY - October 2001

Reviewed by John Kenrick

Like all good theatre lovers in the New York metropolitan area, I've been catching as many shows as my budget will allow – three in the past week. The first was Thou Shalt Not, and seeing as that one is in previews I will bow to tradition and abstain from posting a review for now. Suffice it to say, I was reminded of the time Groucho Marx was asked if he liked a show previewing out of town, and he said – "I'd rather not say. I caught the show at a disadvantage. The curtain was up."

The Music Man

To soothe my battered soul, I returned for the eighth time to Susan Stroman's handsome revival of Meredith Willson's The Music Man. Most of the ensemble is still in top form, with group numbers like "Rock Island Line" and "Pick-a-Little" stopping the show. The school board quartet has every vocal twist and turn polished to a glow, and the ladies of the dance auxiliary commit some delicious acts of scene stealing criminality. Rebecca Luker remains a wonder as Marian the librarian, musically flawless and dramatically fresh and heartfelt. And Ruth Gotschall is a scream as the mayor's pompous wife – an inspired a comic performance!

However, this is one musical that loses a great deal with an uncertain star in the lead. Much as I admire Robert Sean Leonard, he is miscast as Harold Hill. Oh, he can certainly carry a tune, and his boyish good looks are still easy on the eyes, but this role calls for a sparkle and razzmatazz the introspective Leonard cannot muster.  He is clearly trying hard in a role that has to look effortless. At times he seems to be looking for the dark side of Hill, missing out on the merriment that's supposed to lie at the heart of his calculating ways. Not for nothing have Broadway wags been referring to Leonard as "The Music Accountant." He is by no means awful, delivering a clearly professional effort – he's just not in his element. (Hey, Mr. Sondheim, have you got a role for this guy in your next project?)

One or two other cast members are past their prime. For one, Michael Phelan has become a genuine annoyance as Winthrop. Most of his lines and lyrics are so rushed that its impossible to make out what he is saying, and a performance that was always uneven is now thoroughly automatonic. With a potential replacement like little Mitchel Federan kicking up a storm in the chorus, what are the producers waiting for? (No, I'm not some kid-hating meanie – I just had to see bad acting on Broadway, no matter what the actor's age.)

Despite these quibbles, The Music Man is still stupendous entertainment, and the trombone-wielding finale had this audience on its feet screaming with delight. If you haven't seen this production yet – well, you're a big dummy! Get a move on and treat yourself to a classic!

Kiss Me Kate

Two days later, I was once more swept away by the magic of Kiss Me Kate. Three years into its run, it is funnier and brighter than ever.  This is no small thing, since my last visit to the show six months ago had it looking a bit shopworn. Maybe it was the effect of the current crisis in New York, or more likely the addition of some gifted new cast members – either way, this production is once again the embodiment of everything Broadway musical comedy can be.

Burke Moses is dishing out high notes, broad comedy and virile sex appeal with profligate flair as Fred Graham, the ultimate ham actor. Carolee Carmello will surprise many fans with her hilarious take on diva Lilli Vanessi – her "I Hate Men" has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. These two make the on and offstage love battle believable and howlingly funny.

Understudy Ashley Hull was a vulnerable and sexy Lois, delivering an "Always True to You" that outclassed anyone else I have ever seen in the role. Kevin Neil MacReady is an athletic Bill Calhoun, and original cast members Mamie Duncan Gibbs and Stanley Wayne Mathias are still delivering socko performances as the dressers with easily as much talent as their temperamental bosses. Walter Charles is clearly having a ball as Lilli's clueless suitor Harrison Howell. And understudy Kevin Ligon joined original gangster Michael Mulhern to deliver the belly laughs with "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and some flawless stage shenanigans.

Hearing a packed audience roar with laughter at Cole Porter's matchless lyrics was more than just a life affirming experience – it was a balm to the soul. This gorgeous Kiss Me Kate is set to close at year's end, and you owe it to yourself to see it at its peak. And that's precisely where it is right now! Yes, we all want to do something for Broadway in its hour need – but in the process, you'll find that Broadway's joy is doing something just as important for you.

If you want to help revive the theater, and help restore your spirits – catch The Music Man and Kiss Me Kate.

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