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Kiss Me, Kate (11/18/1999 - 12/30/2001)


 

New York Daily News: "Kiss Me, Kate is Wunderbar!"

On the way to the delicious revival of "Kiss Me, Kate," you pass the Theater District block just renamed after composer Cole Porter.

On the way home, you wonder why they didn't name the whole town after him.

This 1948 musical comedy starts with the well-known "Another Op'nin,' Another Show." But this apparent invitation to a run-of-the-mill event is just the first of the evening's delightful jokes.

Because "Kiss Me, Kate" is not just another show. Michael Blakemore's flawless production offers that most unusual of sensations: pure pleasure.

This is a show that takes us back to the golden age of the Broadway musical, when being simple didn't mean being stupid, and being lighthearted didn't mean being empty-headed.

"Kate" slips down so easily that you hardly notice what a complicated cocktail it is. It gets its kick from equal measures of three very different kinds of comedy: Shakespeare, slapstick and screwball.

Sam and Bella Spewack's book uses large chunks of "The Taming of the Shrew," but it manages to get around the naked sexism that has made that comedy almost unplayable in modem times. It does this by wrapping it up in a backstage drama, with actors performing a Baltimore tryout for a musical version of Shakespeare's original.

The Bard's shrew, Kate, is also the spoiled Hollywood diva Lilli Vanessi. The shrew-tamer Petruchio is also her former husband, egomaniacal actor-manager Fred Graham.

So "Kate" becomes a hall of mirrors in which the characters and the roles reflect each other. To sustain the comic illusion, the actors have to be as quick-witted as they are fast on their feet.

To meet this challenge, Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell and the rest of the cast adopt an ingenious and rarely used technique: that of being very, very good.

This is one of those exceptional productions in which the stars really do shine, the jokes are funny and the show-stoppers stop the show.

For all the glitz and glamour, the book and songs demand a curious intimacy from Mazzie and Mitchell. At one level, they have to be larger than life: His ego and her temper are almost monstrous.

But if that were all, they would be merely obnoxious. What we have to see is that these are people who bring out the best and the worst in each other. They are unstable chemicals that explode when they cannot bond.

The great strength of this "Kate" is that Mazzie and Mitchell are not just individually impressive. The sparks they knock off each other light up the whole show.

And there is so much to illuminate, because Porter's score is full of knockout numbers. Mazzie's "I Hate Men" and Mitchell's "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" would be the towering pinacles of most shows. But Porter wrote songs that allow other members of the cast to reach those heights, too.

Adriane Lenox splits open" Another Op'nin,' Another Show" to reveal a soulful, bluesy heart. Stanley Wayne Mathis gives a cool, catlike feel to "Too Darn Hot." Amy Spanger turns from tramp to vamp in "Always True to You (in My Fashion)," proving that lust and laughter can co-exist. Michael Berresse transforms the weakest number in the show, "Bianca," with his vibrant, stunningly athletic dancing.

And Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren as the goons who are accidentally drawn into the cavalcade bring a perfect touch of obscenity to "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

Blakeemore's production wrings every last drop of fun out of these terrific performers, and out of Kathleen Marshall's breathlessly inventive choreography, Robin Wagner's quietly clever sets and the full-blooded jazz of Paul Gemignani's musical direction.

It all adds up a "Kiss" so luscious and lusty that it leaves you weak in the knees.


New York Daily News
11/19/1999

New York Post: "Kisses for 'Kate'!"

Don’t be late, or I'll you berate, for it's wildly great, this "Kiss Me, Kate." I'll stop. Such is the wit and bounce of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate," now enjoying its first Broadway revival since its opening in December 1948, that it can rouse the rhymester even in clods.

This is the last Broadway revival of a classic Golden Age musical in the millennium, and it's a gem, a well-thought-out and sexily stylized production that belongs with the wonderful 1990s revivals of "Carousel," "The King and I" and "Guys and Dolls."

Director Michael Blakemore and choreographer Kathleen Marshall have given this "Kiss Me, Kate" a look, a feel, a clarity, an energy that make the work cohere (well, almost) and carry us blithely across the dull spots (and there are some). The two act-opening ensemble numbers -- "Another Op'nin' Another Show" and "Too Darn Hot" – are vitally important in establishing the show as a piece about the community of theater. All the busyness and exasperation and hard work of show life is in the slow-then-fast "Another Op'nin'" as stagehands and wardrobe people go about their jobs.

"Too Darn Hot," set in alley behind the theater, is Marshall's dance tour de force. We feel the heat of a Baltimore summer day in 1948; we feel, too, the jazz-accented high spirits of the company, led here by the spirited Stanley Wayne Mathis.

We're backstage at a musical version of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," as "conceived, delivered and directed – also starring -- Fredric Graham," a major ham. Graham's ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi is back from Hollywood to play Kate, and emotions backstage come to mirror those onstage. "Kiss Me, Kate" can't kick in, of course, without stars who have larger-than-life qualities.

As Fredric/Petruchio, Brian Stokes Mitchell, who was the original Coalhouse Walker in "Ragtime," reveals an immensely appealing authority, charm and niceness. His Fredric is egotistical without arrogance and lovelorn without wimpiness.

Mitchell has a rich voice and knows just how to bend it to Porter's phrases. His killer number is "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" and he puts it across with impudent wit and table-hopping brio.

As Lilli/Katharine, Marin Mazzie has to fume and rage a lot, but she tempers the role with warmth of personality and loveliness of voice. Her signature song is "I Hate Men," which she delivers with unusual vivacity and vigor.

Don Sebesky's subtly understated orchestrations, Mattin Pakledinaz's riotously busy costumes, and Robin Wagner's evocatively backstage-y sets are all just right.

Porter and book writers Samuel and Bella Spewack wrote this show in the heyday of the serious book show, but "Kiss Me, Kate" clings stubbornly to the old revue format.

The ingenues exist only for two great numbers. Pretty Amy Spanger, as Lois/Bianca, goes to town with the cynical show-stopper "Always True to You (In My Fashion)." Even better is Michael Berresse, who, as Bill/Lucentio, wows us with an elegantly romantic and daringly acrobatic "Bianca."

These two superb songs tell us all we need to know about the characters. A pair of learned gangsters played by Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren slay us with the irresistible "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." As he threatens the audience, Mulheren is particularly funny.

The bad news: Much of the old book is still tedious and dumb; while the new book additions, reportedly by John Guare and involving a Neanderthal general constructed to get cheap liberal laughs, are even dumber. They're also completely unPorterish.

It's not so bad as the feminist revamp of "Annie Get Your Gun," but in the words of Cole Porter, which might have been addressed to improvers, "Why Can't You Behave?"


New York Post
11/19/1999

New York Times: "Spirit Still True (in Its Fashion)"

Forget about turkey for the moment, both the kind that's eaten for Thanksgiving and the kind that closes on Broadway. It is ham that's being served, without apology and with lots of relish, in the mouthwatering new revival of ''Kiss Me, Kate,'' Cole Porter's sybarite's delight of a musical about battling egos in show business.

As presented by a preening cast led by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, who wear a spotlight as though it were a dressing gown and vice versa, this ''Kate,'' which opened last night at the Martin Beck Theater, proves that ham can indeed make a banquet if the spices are zesty enough.

Avoiding the attitudes that are anathema to lively revivals of vintage musicals -- reverence and condescension -- the director Michael Blakemore and the choreographer Kathleen Marshall have shaped a show that is broad, brazen, often shameless and finally irresistible. The production, which doesn't seem to have a thought in its giddy head beyond entertaining us as much as it's entertaining itself, feels like one long ear-to-ear grin.

It had been looking recently as though some Cromwellian moratorium had been placed on musicals that existed purely to please, what with shows leaning toward either the robotic (both ''The Lion King'' and ''Saturday Night Fever'' seem to be looking, in different ways, to a time in which human actors will be unnecessary) or the solemnly preachy (''Ragtime,'' ''Parade''). But following on the flying heels of this season's ''Contact,'' Susan Stroman's blissful paean to dance as a life force, ''Kiss Me, Kate'' asserts that there is still a place for sophisticated, grown-up fun in the New York theater.

Not that this ''Kate'' is a groundbreaker like ''Contact,'' with its choreographic narrative, or the revival of ''Chicago,'' with its glittering minimalist production. Even in 1948, when the show opened, few reviews made claims for ''Kate'' as a masterpiece of innovation, despite the cleverness of its two-tiered structure, which parallels a Broadway-bound performance in Baltimore of Shakespeare's ''Taming of the Shrew'' with the backstage love-hate affair of its stars.

''All you can say for 'Kiss Me, Kate' is that it is terribly enjoyable,'' wrote Brooks Atkinson, the critic for The New York Times, who felt the musical was unlikely to join the immortal ranks of revolutionary works like ''Show Boat'' and ''Oklahoma!'' The Critics' Circle Award that season went to ''South Pacific,'' a show with a social conscience that was in the ''organic'' tradition of ''Oklahoma!''

Yet ''Kiss Me, Kate'' turns out to have staying power in ways that other ''terribly enjoyable'' musicals from the first half of the century (''The Boys From Syracuse,'' for example, and even ''Annie Get Your Gun'') have not. It's not just its top-drawer Porter score, which ranges from the luxurious minor-key masochism of ''So in Love'' to the double-entendre-laden bounciness of ''Always True to You (in My Fashion).''

''Kiss Me, Kate'' also wallows happily in the romance of actors as enchanting, infuriating breed apart, self-created, self-worshiping gods on their own Olympus. After all, Sam and Bella Spewack's book, which has been tweaked here and there in ways that never betray the show's original spirit, was partly inspired by the highly dramatic behavior of the American theater's married monarchs, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. And there are few things an actor enjoys more than playing an actor who behaves badly beautifully.

This sensibility is conveyed not only by the evening's splendidly robust leads, Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Mazzie as the tantrum-prone divorced couple who are reunited as scrapping co-stars in ''Shrew''; it also filters into every character part. And when two Damon Runyonesque gangsters (gloriously embodied by Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren) suddenly find themselves, for arcane reasons of plot, onstage and in costume in the play within the play, you can see them getting drunk on limelight. That intoxication is what the show celebrates.

Mr. Blakemore and Ms. Marshall channel actorly narcissism into a steady stream of high spirits, even through long stretches of (deliberately) awkwardly delivered Shakespeare and some jokes that frankly fall flat. Those who know ''Kiss Me, Kate'' only from the stilted 1953 movie version may be startled by the raw vitality on tap here. While the production definitely comes from another time, it also turns the past into a vital present.

The perspective is beautifully reflected in the fine contributions of Robin Wagner (sets), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting), which create a sumptuously colored palette that somehow seems tinged with a hint of sepia, suggestive of hand-tinted photographs. Mr. Wagner's big, bravura designs, which shift seamlessly between the Elizabethan settings for ''The Taming of the Shrew'' and the glamorously gritty behind-the-scenes world of a Baltimore theater, never overpower the people who inhabit them.

The stage has been carefully conceived as a showcase for showing off. That high-rising triple-level view of backstage stairs and walkways (which brings to mind the David Merrick production of ''42nd Street'') is put to very specific choreographic use by a frighteningly agile performer named Michael Berresse, who scales it like a human fly in the show's most inventive dance routine.

Such acrobatics are of a piece with the overall tone of ''Kiss Me, Kate,'' which never shrinks from the overstated gesture. Mugging, clowning, overemoting and operatic vocal embellishments have all been encouraged, yet only rarely do these things slip into sloppiness.

The expansive performance style, of a silly looseness contained by theatrical discipline, perfectly matches the prankster aspect of Porter's songs, with their impish satire of familiar forms (as in the Viennese waltz ''Wunderbar'') and outrageous innuendoes and rhymes. (Who else would team ''Sanka'' with ''Bianca''?)

The voluptuous Ms. Mazzie, who verged on statue stiffness in her roles in ''Passion'' and ''Ragtime,'' unbends in delicious ways here. As Lilli Vanessi, the stage diva turned movie diva now making a stage comeback (Hollywood got fed up with her hysterics), she is as much a theatrical caricature as a Hirschfeld sketch, drawn in big, looping lines that capture the essence of a real personality.

She flirts perilously with grotesqueness, making faces that turn her marmoreal beauty into splenetic ugliness. Her outlandishly entertaining take on that great exercise in animosity, ''I Hate Men,'' which here includes a vivid simulation of giving birth, goes over the top, for sure. But it doesn't go out of control. And when Ms. Mazzie needs to switch to a lyric sincerity, for ''So in Love'' and ''I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,'' her soprano shimmers like polished silver.

As the rakish actor-manager Fred Graham, Mr. Mitchell, the original Coalhouse Walker of ''Ragtime'' and the womanizing record mogul in the Encores concert version of ''Do Re Mi,'' confirms his status as a rarity in American theater these days: a bona fide musical matinee idol with a sly sense of humor. It took him about 20 minutes to grow into his full presence the night I saw him; but once he did, he was unstoppable.

His command of the trickier elements of Porter diction, as in the multilingually rhymed ''Where Is the Life That Late I Led?,'' is impeccable. And when he stands center stage in midsong, flexing his majestic baritone while his arms reach for the heavens, he seems to enfold the whole audience into an embrace as generous as it is self-admiring.

It seems fitting that a backstage musical should have its fresh young star in the making, and this production's comes in the intensely centered person of Amy Spanger, who plays Lois Lane, the saucy cabaret performer making her theatrical debut as Bianca in ''Shrew.'' She gets three of the evening's best songs (''Why Can't You Behave?,'' ''Tom, Dick or Harry'' and ''Always True to You''), and she lands each of them with a sharp-edged sensuality that turns her gold-digging archetype into something newly minted.

Ms. Marshall, who emerged as a choreographer to watch with her work for the Encores series at City Center, brings a crisp and flavorful wit to the novelty numbers ''We Open in Venice'' and ''Tom, Dick or Harry.'' Her Agnes de Mille-style ensemble sequence, ''Too Darn Hot,'' led by the engaging Stanley Wayne Matthis, though a show-stopper, seemed to me a tad protracted. And I wish that she and Mr. Blakemore could have brought more vigor and focus to the evening's first number, ''Another Op'nin' Another Show,'' which is better in concept than execution and scarcely prepares us for the treasures that lie ahead.

Nonetheless, this ''Kate'' is definitely more than the sum of its parts. The individual numbers and performances don't all have the high sheen that, say, those in the revival of ''Chicago'' had when it first opened. But it possesses a wonderfully heady momentum that doesn't let up, and it is to the show's credit that you remember it less for individual, heightened moments than as one exhilarating whoosh.

Well, there is one particular sequence that is now forever pasted in my memory. That's when Mr. Wilkof and Mr. Mulheren, as a couple of hoods who have been hanging around backstage to collect on a gambling debt, deliver their farewell song before a drop curtain.

That song is ''Brush Up Your Shakespeare,'' a bawdy guide to using scholarly references for picking up women, and these gentlemen sell it with priceless deadpan panache. As they metamorphose from mere thugs into gleeful (if still grim-faced) vaudevillians, it becomes clear just how potent a virus the theater bug is. By that time, of course, the audience has already been thoroughly infected.


New York Times
11/19/1999

USA Today: "Kiss Me, Kate Finds New Romantic Sparks"

Until now, Kiss Me, Kate has been one of Broadway's greatest unperformable classics.

This forerunner of "insider chic" depicts a warring theater couple backstage. Their conflicts continue onstage during Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, in addition to a number of subplots – including gangsters collecting on gambling debts. The sum total inspired Cole Porter's best songs. Strangely, the music has stayed young while the once-novel libretto now seems clumsy, naïve and poorly motivated. No wonder the 1948 musical has been away from Broadway since the original closed.

Yet this new Broadway revival is fresh, funny and bitchy, oozing stage charisma at every turn. Kiss Me, Kate, it seems, has been treated to the kind of careful ministrations one associates with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, thanks to director' Michael Blakemore and Six Degrees of Separation author John Guare. In fact, such changes - especially as executed by an excellent cast of Broadway regulars who sing brilliantly and can handle Shakespeare - suggest how the show could be even better than here, which leaves you wishing the revisions went further.

Work on the script ranged from tweaking jokes to rewriting characters. In the former category, those lowbrow character types with their witless witticisms about Shakespeare suddenly start uttering things that are much funnier and tell us a bit about who's saying them.

Maybe 1948 audiences never questioned why the show's main characters - two actors formerly married to each other - would work together again onstage, even though the wife had gone on to greater things in Hollywood. Now that lapse is explained by a line referring to her becoming movie box office poison after losing her temper and decking Cary Grant.

One song is added - From This Moment On - and one secondary character rewritten, Kate/Lilli's new fiance - who makes a late-Act II appearance - was originally a vaguely drawn bureaucrat but is now recast as II surrogate General MacArthur (played with hilarious extravagance by Ron Holgate) who destroys any hope of marital repose with his meticulously orchestrated political career.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how much or how little one knows of the original. It's a fun but theatrically nourishing production that gives well-deserved star turns to actors seen so often on the New' Yorkstage they almost feel like family. Brian Stokes Mitchell (recently of Ragtime) could play the virile, egotistical Petruchio/Fred Graham in his sleep but instead gives a crisp, vigorous, grandly conceived performance. The ethereal beauty of Marin Mazzie (late of Ragtime and Passion) plays well against her on and offstage shrewishness. Both are among Broadway's sturdiest vocalists, as one would hope for in songs like So In Love and Were Thine That Special Face.

As for the secondary love interest, dashing Michael Berresse (who was Fred Casely in Chicago) is full of roguish humor as the compulsively gambling Bill Calhoun, even though he's saddled with the score's weakest song, Bianca, Amy Spanger (who toured in Chicago) is wonderfully cute and sexy singing Always True to You (In My Fashion). Lee Wilkof has made a specialty of playing 1940s character types; here he plays one of the gangsters threatening to stop the show (literally), bringing an authentic breath of Damon Runyon into a role that may not fully deserve him.


USA Today
11/19/1999

Variety: "Kiss Me, Kate"

Another op'nin', yes, but "Kiss Me, Kate" is hardly just another show. Boasting the great Cole Porter's greatest score, the musical has been absent from Broadway in the half-century since its 1951 closing. Has it weathered the decades with grace? Actually, as the nimble new revival at the Martin Beck Theater begins to work its adorable magic, the question hardly arises. Contemporary reality melts away, thoughts of the plaguing new millennium recede, and the audience is transported back to the days when the Broadway musical was a land of easygoing enchantment, where trifling romantic shenanigans and comic shtick were spun into gold-plated entertainment, borne aloft on melodies as hummable as they were durable, and lyrics that tickled all the way home.

The past can be a pretty wonderful place to visit, and the genius of Michael Blakemore's new "Kiss Me, Kate" is it is content to give us the old "Kiss Me, Kate," with no apologies made for loose ends, thin characters, pat endings. With an assist from John Guare, Blakemore has spruced up Sam and Bella Spewack's original book with a few sly jokes that bear a recent date-stamp, but the musical's plot is still a bantamweight sparring with a heavyweight score. The discrepancy is as immaterial now as it was then: With two bright new Broadway stars blessed with heaven-sent voices center stage, "Kiss Me, Kate" is a trip to the moon. Who cares if the vehicle of transportation isn't this year's model?

Those celestial voices belong to Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell, erstwhile co-stars in the ensemble musical "Ragtime" who here get the starring roles they richly deserve. They play actors Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, formerly married, currently at daggers drawn, and thrown together by circumstances in a touring musical adaptation of "The Taming of the Shrew" that's bogged down in Baltimore.

Buried beneath the surface enmity between these two are the embers of lingering affection, of course, but this rekindling love, ignited in song through the mock-nostalgic waltz "Wunderbar," is thrown comfortably off course when a bouquet intended for Fred's new plaything, the ingenue Lois Lane (Amy Spanger), falls into Lilli's hands. Much mayhem ensues, nudged along by a pair of poker-faced gangsters played with impeccable deadpan poise by Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren.

The show's ingenious, nearly perfect first act contains generous doses of the singing "Shrew," with book by the Bard, and songs by Porter that contain some of his most inventive lyrics. Porter's rhyming genius seems to have been inspired particularly by the chance to dabble in an Elizabethan thesaurus, and by the dual nature of the show itself, in which life imitates art offstage and art imitates life onstage.

Mitchell and Mazzie are playing old-fashioned stereotypes, the imperious stage stars of yore who were presumed to perform with as much flamboyance and self-involvement offstage as on (the story was inspired by backstage tales of the Lunts). They seem a trifle stiff at first inside the arch contours of these roles, but Porter's songs soon loosen them up. (How could they not?)

Mazzie has the angular, icy beauty that befits a movie queen of the period, and looks smashing in the faux Dior suit in which she takes the stage (everyone, in fact, is better served by Martin Pakledinaz's 1940s costumes than his garish, distracting costumes for the "Shrew" scenes). But her pure and versatile soprano is Mazzie's most marvelous attribute. She can communicate the torchy emotion of "So in Love" as ably as she spins out the Jenny Lind-style coloratura required for the first act finale, which contains a dazzling vocal duet with a flute. A quibble: Her broad comic take on Porter's ode to male odiousness, "I Hate Men," wows the crowd, but the song's wit would shine just as clearly if she didn't underline it so strenuously. (At times such as this, the spirit of Lucille Ball seems to be hovering over the production, which also includes a goofy grape-crushing dance sequence.)

Mitchell is simply the finest Broadway baritone of his generation -- and probably several others, to boot. Add to his plush voice a commanding, glamorous presence and a quizzical eyebrow made for just such hijinks as the plot serves up, and the result is a performance to treasure from a leading man who could single-handedly bring back the era of the matinee idol.

Spanger is also a splendid singer, who gives a vampy reading of "Always True to You (in My Fashion)." She does not, however, capitalize on all the comic possibilities of a role that could be a star maker (Lisa Kirk's performance in the original is more vivid, even via recordings). As Lois' ne'er-do-well boyfriend, Michael Berresse, an able dancer with a devilish grin and abundant, wiry energy, is saddled with one of the score's weaker tunes, "Bianca," but choreographer Kathleen Marshall, doing her finest work yet, lets him end his solo with a breathtaking gymnastic feat.

Aside from a slow few opening minutes, there aren't any dead spots in the show's nearly three hours. Blakemore is a masterly director of comedy, and helps Wilkof and Mulheren turn their dim, flat-footed gangsters into wry comic gems, with "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" neatly functioning as their own personal curtain call. Ronald Holgate also hits the bull's-eye as the pompous general to whom Lilli is betrothed (although the interpolation of a "From This Moment On" as a comic duet for Lilli and the general simply doesn't work).

One might have hoped for more inspiration from Robin Wagner's serviceable sets, but they are in keeping with an overall aesthetic that doesn't seek to mask the show's origins in a specific time and place. Also a specific feeling: The crowning achievement of Cole Porter's long and celebrated career on Broadway, "Kiss Me, Kate" is a valentine to stage folk, a love letter in song linking Shakespeare and showbiz. In this musically resplendent new revival -- final tributes to ace musical director Paul Gemignani and Don Sebesky's agile orchestrations -- the variously sweet, saucy and silly sounds of its affection are eternally gratifying.


Variety
11/18/1999

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