Everything right with the "Kiss Me, Kate" revival, and there's a lot, relates to the way director Michael Blakemore ushers us into the proceedings.
The opening is "Another Op'nin', Another Show," Cole Porter's no-business-like-show-business anthem. We're backstage in a dimly lighted Baltimore theater for a tryout of a new musical based on Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew."
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 29, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Performance dates--Two performance dates for the musical "Kiss Me, Kate" at the Shubert Theatre were incorrectly reported in a review in Monday's Calendar. The additional performances are Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 10 at 2 p.m.
A stagehand mutters the first Porter lyric under his breath, as he carries a work light off into the wings. Funny, this doesn't sound like the start of something big. But it is. Blakemore and his estimable colleague, choreographer Kathleen Marshall, neither force the comedy nor oversell the show biz goods as they introduce the characters.
The Act 2 opener is "Too Darn Hot," which ranks among the best Act 2 openers, ever. (I can't think of another show that wouldn't benefit from its interpolation.) It too begins on a quiet, purely atmospheric note, in the alley behind the theater, with performers milling around, trying to beat the heat. The song builds very subtly and quietly. Then it gets better and better until it's reason enough to catch "Kiss Me, Kate."
So is "Tom, Dick or Harry," with its irresistible dance break--Shakespeare, live at the Persian Room, circa 1948. And how 'bout that thrush with the pins playing Lois Lane, by the name of Nancy Anderson, catnip to the butter-and-egg men she sings about in "Always True to You"? Reet! She's murder !
The women generally outclass the men here. Yet even with some casting snags, the production continuing at the Shubert Theatre through mid-October is a good look at one of the most pleasing Broadway musical revivals in years.
The show's relaxed quality may disorient some folks, used to bigger, louder events. (Even the amplification levels are relatively tasteful.) It's not an attack-dog show, though it concerns battling egos, the now-divorced Fred Graham (Rex Smith) and Lilli Vanessi (Rachel York), at each other's throats offstage and on, yet wrestling with feelings they can't shake.
Smith certainly gives it his all. He ladles on the cross-eyed shtick, the foppish struts and poses, and, most fervently, the thing he truly lives for as a performer: high notes.
Yet he's not quite right for the part. Smith's tight, tremulous vibrato doesn't flatter Porter songs ideally handled by the booming baritone type, such as Alfred Drake or Howard Keel or Brian Stokes Mitchell. (They all did it.)
York, another story. Her sultry vocals have been heard to greater advantage in other shows, but she's swell all the same. Hers is a thorough, sharp-witted, comic performance, broad but not tiringly so.
As Hattie, Susan Beaubian gets to do "Another Op'nin" and not enough else (she'd agree, no doubt) but she's great company. In the supporting ranks, Chuck Wagner (who came through in "Jekyll & Hyde" two years ago) stands out in the smallish role of Harrison Howell, Lilli's intended. In 1948, this character was a dry-as-dust politician; for the revival, an uncredited John Guare rewrote him as a Gen. MacArthur macho type.
Jim Newman's Bill Calhoun is just OK, especially up against Anderson's excellent Lois; his big acrobatic turn in "Bianca"--a killer on Broadway--here barely injures, rather than kills. It may be a scenic design matter. Robin Wagner's adroit evocations of backstage Baltimore and Shakespeare's Padua are lovely, but built to tour, Wagner's scenery can't take much in the way of jungle-gym activity.
The dance ensemble is unusually strong, and choreographer Marshall has always been this revival's secret weapon. Pulling a page or three from Jack Cole, and from Bob Fosse (the latter choreographed the film version's highlight, "From This Moment On"), Marshall's invention never flags. The grape-stomping routine is both unexpected and sexy, and for her work with "Tom, Dick or Harry" and "Too Darn Hot" alone, I'd see this show again tomorrow.
It's a pleasure to hear Porter's score, lovingly handled by musical director Paul Gemignani. The "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" orchestrations are too cute by half, but all else sounds primo, thanks to orchestrator Don Sebesky, as well as to dance arranger David Chase.
As a parting bonus, we have Richard Poe and Michael Arkin, portraying a couple of nameless gangsters. Their attempt to collect on a gambling debt provides Sam and Bella Spewack's libretto with its tiny scrap of conflict. The song these two sing is "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." And it's most heartening to hear large laughs provoked by Porter's audaciously cheap rhymes, 53 years after he first paired "behavior is heinous" with "Coriolanus."
"Kiss Me, Kate," Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Also: Sept. 8, 8 p.m., and Sept. 10, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 13. $40-$70. (800) 447-7400 or http://www.telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Rex Smith: Fred Graham
Rachel York: Lilli Vanessi
Nancy Anderson: Lois Lane
Jim Newman: Bill Calhoun
Richard Poe: First Man
Michael Arkin: Second Man
Susan Beaubian: Hattie
Randy Donaldson: Paul
Chuck Wagner :Harrison
Howell: Kevin B. McGlynn
Ralph: Keith Howard
Pops: Herman Petras
Harry: Trevor Rommy Sandhu
Dance Captain: Steven Sofia
Cab Driver: Stephen Reed
Gremio: John D. Baker
Hortensio: John Treacy Egan
Philip: Michael Lackey
Haberdasher: Tina Marie Casamento, Juliet Fischer, Ivy Fox, Carol Lee Meadows, Kimberly Dawn Neumann, Marci Reid, Margaret ShaferEnsemble
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Sam and Bella Spewack. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Musical director Paul Gemignani. Scenic design by Robin Wagner. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound by Tony Meola. Orchestrations by Don Sebesky. Dance arrangements by David Chase. Production stage manager Joseph Sheridan.