WHAT "Kiss Me Kate"
WHERE Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.
INFO From $59; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Minor tweaks update the glorious Cole Porter classic for the #MeToo era.
There’s a running joke in my extended family of musical theater lovers that involves matching songs and the shows they came from. More often than not when a song comes up — "Too Darn Hot," say, or "Another Op'nin', Another Show" — the correct answer is invariably "Kiss Me, Kate."
Cole Porter's 1948 musical won the first Tony Award for best musical, largely because of its marvelous score, song after song of showstoppers. But like so many musicals of that era, the sexual dynamics of the story are hard to stomach these days, presenting serious issues for companies wanting to bring back these classics.
For the revival at Studio 54, Roundabout Theatre Company hired lyricist-composer Amanda Green to rework things just enough to make the show palatable in these #MeToo times. But unless you know the musical cold, the additional material she’s responsible for will be hard to identify (I’m pretty sure the line “guns don’t kill people” wasn’t there before). But while these tweaks might make the show feel more current, they don’t really deal with the problem at hand.
That would be the misogynistic message suggesting a woman is required to be nothing but subservient to her husband, and the blame for that goes to one William Shakespeare. As the play-within-a play musical goes, a struggling theater company is on the road with the Bard's painfully sexist "The Taming of the Shrew," and its two recently divorced stars continue their feuding onstage and off.
Things get pretty physical between the two, and here’s where it gets a little PC. In the dual role of leading lady Lilli Vanessi and Kate, Kelli O’Hara (perfection as always) gives as good as she gets in her knockdown brawl (minus the usual spanking) with her ex Fred Graham/Petruchio (Will Chase, oozing charm). By battle's end, and this is important, neither one can sit down.
Truthfully, it ends up not mattering all that much. Director Scott Ellis lets O’Hara and Chase and the rest of the cast win the audience over with the glorious music — "Wunderbar," "So In Love," "From This Moment On" — and choreographer Warren Carlyle pulls out all the stops in joyful production numbers, killing it especially with "Too Darn Hot" and Corbin Bleu's rapid-fire tap routines.
One little word change in the finale may be the biggest concession to the times. Instead of "I am ashamed that women are so simple," a more empowered Kate sings "people are so simple," suggesting the give-and-take of more modern relationships. I'll buy that.