Performing Arts: Theater
March 22, 2019
A single ghost light announces the beginning of a rough-and-tumble comedy that pits immovable wills against implacable egos in the marvelous Broadway revival of Kiss Me Kate.

Cole Porter’s play within a play, based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew debuted in 1948 and featured choreography by one of America’s modern dance pioneers, Hanya Holm. Because the musical thrives on a physicality that borders on a West Side Story rumble, the choreographer, Warren Carlyle is of central importance.

Embittered by a short-lived marriage, two musical theater actors – Fred Graham (a delightful Will Chase) and Lilli Vanessi (the sublime Kelli O’Hara) – star in Graham’s Broadway-bound musical. But trouble brews when Graham’s wandering eye and hands rout Vanessi’s amorous memories. Intent on seducing Graham, the hip-swinging, chest-thrusting ingénue Lois Lane (I saw the understudy Christine Cornish Smith) kicks the sand that ultimately produces the pearl between Graham and Vanessi.

High points primarily surround Ms. O’Hara’s crystal clear, soprano voice. There’s a halo of perfection that settles over every single note and syllable projected by Ms. O’Hara from the romantically lush ”Wunderbar” to the gutsy “I Hate Men” and heart-wrenching “So In Love.”

Besides the consistently hummable score, director Scott Ellis and Carlyle animate every scene with uninterrupted movement sequences that enlarge the characters. Dance fills much of the action, fusing ballet beats and leg extensions to Fosse-style hunches over tight prances, tap extravaganzas and acrobatics seamlessly integrated into the choreographic language. Most Importantly, the choreography does not rely on “tricks” for applause; it trades in Inventive recreations of traditional chorus line kicks, tap routines and intimate duets.

In the production’s now-famous number “It’s Too Darn Hot” (made famous in the 1953 film version by Bob Fosse) the racially mixed cast members mingle outside in the alley designed by David Rockwell. Action heats up when the multi-talented Corbin Bleu starts to click his heels against a wood crate. That blows up into a dynamic tap dance with James T. Lane -- reminiscent of the Nicholas Brothers’ renowned splits and sophisticated footwork. Impressively, percussive taps build on each other until they split apart into multiple syncopated rhythms.

Meanwhile, back in Padua, the viciously temperamental Kate is eligible and rich but unmarried because no man dares to tame her—that is until the mercenary Petruchio arrives to claim a bride. Their hilariously bitter battle for supremacy is evoked through overhead lifts that dodged Jeff Mahshie’s overflowing Shakespearean gowns, body flips and rough lindy hop maneuvers. There may be no rear-end paddling in this version, but by golly, the singing and acting never waivers under the pressure of the show’s acrobatics.

Not surprisingly, John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams (the two thugs intent on reclaiming cash for a bad bet) grab the spotlight in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Replete with canes, striped suits and straw hats, they happily milk the audience’s applause with every soft shoe strut and false exit.

What’s particularly pleasing, in a show replete with pleasing moments, is the chemistry between Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase. Not the most bombastic Petruchio, Chase establishes his male privilege in a quieter, more believable manner. Under Ellis’ keen eye, the dramatic arc builds into a tower of animosity that melts into a touching moment of loving, mutual recognition.

There is not downside to the Roundabout Theatre Company’s rousing revival of Kiss Me Kate at Studio 54.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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