Kiss Me Kate at the Roundabout

Kelli O'Hara in Kiss Me Kate (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Kelli O’Hara in Kiss Me Kate (Photo: Joan Marcus)

By Nancy Salz

You’re going to love this Kate! She is proud. She is powerful.

She is Kelli O’Hara at her comedic and singing best. When she says “I hate men,” you believe her completely. Not because she rants or screams. She simply confesses the fact, as though telling us her favorite color: “I love red.” Gradually Kate’s signature song of that title grows into rage, but it’s never over the top. It’s the best performance I ever heard of one of the musical theatre’s most celebrated songs.

You’re going to love Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of  Kiss Me Kate, too. Under the imaginative direction of Scott Ellis, it has been reimagined for the “#MeToo” era. Do you remember the famous song “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple?” That would have hardly flown these days. Fortunately, it has been changed to “I Am Ashamed That People Are So Simple.” With a few more changes, the lyrics work for the plot and for today. Even Cole Porter, who wrote the show music and lyrics, would likely approve … or at least understand!

When Kate fights with her Petruchio/Husband-Fred Graham , (Will Chase) she fights as physically as he does: kicking and punching. And her almost cringe-worthy slaps to his face reverberate throughout the theatre.In the end, Kate-The-Shrew isn’t tamed by male brutishness, although Petruchio certainly tries. She is softened by love.

Chase is equally as superb as O’Hara. His voice is sublime. (Why don’t we see him more often?)

You probably know that Kiss Me Kate is a show within a show. A traveling theatre company stops in Baltimore to present The Taming of The Shrew. We see that play and the company’s backstage shenanigans before, during and after it. Katherine and Petruchio of  Taming are an untamed couple, feuding divorcees, Lilli and Fred, in adjoining dressing rooms. Fred, who is having an affair with Lois (who is having her own troubles with her gambling boyfriend, Bill),  sends flowers to Lois that end up on Lilli’s dressing table.  Bill, meanwhile, has signed Fred’s name to a gambling IOU for ten thousand dollars, and two Damon Runyon characters show up in Fred’s dressing roomto try to claim the money. When Lilli threatens to walk out mid-performance, Fred convinces the men to keep her on-stage or they’ll never get their money. They accomplish that task by waving a small, silver revolver.

Supporting O’Hara and Chase are stand-out performances by Corbin Bleu as Bill and Stephanie Styles as Bianca. Bleu’s dancing is effortless and mesmerizing. Styles is a strong Bianca, but I personally found her cliché, squeaky voice annoying at times. John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams as the nameless Damon Runyon characters do justice to some of Porter’s wittiest lyrics in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Plus the chorus is large, numbering 16 singer-dancers. Even the orchestra, under the direction of the incomparable  Paul Gemignani, has 15 players.

Warren Carlyle, the choreographer, (think the recent stylish Hello Dolly! and the future Music Man) keeps getting better and better. His numbers helped bring the show into the present. You can just imagine the fun that Carlyle had with the “Dick, Dick, a-Dick” line from Bianca’s song “Tom, Dick or Harry.” The expanded “Too Darn Hot” number that begins the second act opens with the slithering, smooth dancer, James T. Lane, moving to a solo clarinet plucked from the orchestra and playing on stage (Greg Thymius, I’m pretty sure). It’s hot and jazzy and riveting.

“Kiss Me Kate” premiered in 1948,  near the beginning of Broadway’s Golden Age of Musicals. With a hilarious book by Sam and Bella Spewack, the show’s initial run was 1,077 performances. Unfortunately, the Roundabout Kiss Me Kate  is a limited run and closes on June 2nd.  If other reviewers agree with my rave above, this will be a tough ticket.

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter; Book by Sam and Bella Spewack; Directed by Scott Ellis; Choreography by Warren Carlyle; Music Director, Paul Gemignani; Set Design by David Rockwell; Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Brian Ronan.

Starring Kelli O’Hara, Will Chase, Corbin Bleu. With Terence Archie, Mel Johnson Jr., James T. Lane, John Pankow, Stephanie Styles, Adrienne Walker, Lance Coadie Williams, and an ensemble of 16 singer-dancers.