For all the talk of political correctness, sensitivity to women and changes that had to be made to the inherently sexist KISS ME, KATE, the current Roundabout production still offers one glaring insult to the female sex.
It involves Lois Lane who is, by the way, NOT the character from SUPERMAN. Here she’s an aspiring actress who’s dating co-star Bill Calhoun in a musical version of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. Lois is also flirting with its director-producer-star Fred Graham — which is one reason he cast her as Bianca.
So while Amanda Green and others were massaging the 1948 masterpiece in order to “bring it into the 21st century,” as the current terminology goes, they should have put a brain in Lois’ head and not just left an empty space there.
This Lois has a squeaky voice, an overly silly laugh, a glazed look that suggests she’s just been hit in the forehead by a two-by-four and mispronounces five-dollar words such as “chiropodist.” These four choices, it should be noted, aren’t found in the original script’s stage directions.
Considering that Lois was first played by no-shrinking-violet Lisa Kirk and then in the film by the savvy Ann Miller, she was originally a strong presence. Why make her weaker now?
Lois is certainly shown to be smart when she sings “Always True to You in My Fashion,” which may be the Cole Porter song with the best-ever wordplay. When Lois sings of sugar daddy Mr. Harris, she notes “If a Harris pat means a Paris hat,” she’ll do what he requests. Yet the dimwit that we have at Studio 54 would be incapable of this deftness.
Such a characterization may be there to make us say “How adorable!” or “Isn’t she the cutest thing?” Perhaps it’s there to promulgate the careworn idea that young actresses are utterly naïve if not stupid. But in 2019, women – even those in a show that remains in 1948 – should be portrayed as brighter.
None of this is the fault of actress Stephanie Styles, who’s following the direction of Scott Ellis and the script updated by Green (originally written by Sam and Bella Spewack) — and one that still shows a few fingerprints from John Guare’s 1999 adaptation. Styles gives a hint that she wants to show Lois’ intelligence in “Always True.” During “Tom, Dick and Harry” she gives a knowing growl that shows there could be more to her. But for the most part, Styles is sentenced to play a bubblehead.
KISS ME, KATE was the second-ever stage show I ever saw when I was but 15. When the three suitors for Bianca’s hand (and body) were singing “Tom, Dick and Harry” and ending the song with “a-dicka-dick” six times, I blinked in surprise. Could it be that Porter was referencing the male organ with the crass term my high school classmates were using?
Any teen who attends this production won’t have to wonder. Choreographer Warren Carlyle has the trio thrust out their hips — all the better to see those male organs, my dear.
He does well by the rest of the number, though. However, like every other choreographer since the show opened, he hasn’t found a solution that would support the lyric “Too Darn Hot.” Yes, we all like a second act to begin with a rousing numba, but, as the lyric goes, “when the thermometer goes way up,” chances are people don’t want to dance, especially frenetically.
(Too bad that Tommy Tune never choreographed KISS ME, KATE; here’s betting that he would have found a solution that would have made sense.)
Although the original production went through a carefree tryout en route to raves in New York, many a critic along the way has since carped about the scene in which two gangsters sing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” These mugs first came backstage to collect gambling money from Fred (although Bill had lost it – and apparently lost his mind when signing Fred’s name to an I.O.U.). Once Fred’s co-star and ex-wife Lilli Vanessi wants to quit the show because of his tyrannical behavior, he hires them to keep her in line.
That’s solid and believable writing – until they’re on their way out of the theater and get lost. They wind up on stage, when the orchestra strikes up the vamp to the song and they start singing. How would these low-lifes know erudite references to 13 of Shakespeare’s plays and his one narrative poem?
For the last 70 years, they just have — and have got away with it because the terrific song is one of Broadway’s best eleven o’clock numbers.
There is a simple answer which one of the many bookwriters should have found. Make the two stage-struck individuals who have always yearned for a chance to be in a show. They promise Fred they’ll stay around IF he gives them a number to perform. And he does, which they can rehearse offstage unseen by us and then do splendidly when their moment arrives.
Despite these problems, KISS ME, KATE is worth seeing. Many have taken issue with Green’s changing the line that Kate sings – and Shakespeare wrote – near show’s end: “I Am Ashamed that Women Are So Simple” has become “I Am Ashamed that People Are So Simple.” Frankly, it’s a good idea, for both the men and women here have many moments where they’re shown to be simple-minded. Fred’s egocentricity, Lilli’s getting herself involved with another man who wants to dominate, Bill’s gambling and forging and all that’s been noted above about this Lois.
As Lilli Vanessi, Kelli O’Hara endears herself to us the moment she makes her entrance backstage on the first day of rehearsal. The look on her face says “It’s good to be back doing a show again.” How nice to see a star who appreciates her life and hasn’t become bored by it.
Then O’Hara makes her face show misgivings. After all, working with an ex is never easy and often impossible. When she later sings “So in Love” and refers to “the night when you first were there,” we can spy in her eyes that she’s actually seeing that initial meeting once again.
Her singing of that glorious song makes it look easy. It’s not, but that’s what true stars do. As impressive as that is, listen for the trilling O’Hara does at the end of the first act when she’s onstage as Kate. Has trilling ever been so thrilling?
Will Chase is an admirable Fred. Although his rendition of “Were Thine Thy Special Face” is a little arch, he brings it to a big and impressive finish. Equally deft is his “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” considering the sexist land-mines that run all through it. In fact, the last image which is particularly unpleasant in these more enlightened times has been improved by Green.
As Bill, Corbin Bleu is wonderfully grounded and natural when he acts. When he dances in the irrelevant number “Bianca,” he does amazing footwork on a staircase.
Mel Johnson, Jr. has the gravitas that Baptista – Kate and Bianca’s father – needs. However, in one scene where he gets excited, he jumps up and down as a kid does. One must wonder if Ellis is slyly saying that Fred Graham is a director who goes for excesses and not he. Whatever the case, give Ellis credit for terrific visual jokes in “We Open in Venice” and “I Hate Men.”
And finally, if I may put on my Musical Theater Maven hat, who did the set decoration for this production? We’re still in 1948, which is clear from a discussion of the upcoming Truman-Dewey presidential race. Plastered on the walls backstage are posters for ON YOUR TOES and ANYTHING GOES, which are fine titles to choose, given that both of them had been produced before 1948. But the artwork is from the respective 1954 and 1962 revivals.
On the other hand, the artwork for GUYS AND DOLLS and PAINT YOUR WAGON is right, but the timing is wrong: the former opened in 1950 and the latter in 1951. If Roundabout wanted to bring KISS ME, KATE into the future, it would have done better to do it through Lois Lane and not anachronistic posters.
While we’re at it, on the show curtain trumpeting the production, why are Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham billed UNDER the title? Both have egos as big as Greenland and would ensure that their names would reign high above THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.
And the front-of-house artwork for this production? It shows KISS ME, KATE on a show curtain, but the “K” in KATE is askew; preventing it from falling is Kelli O’Hara’s hand. It’s a good metaphor for a production where the Tony-winning star is doing her best to keep the show on an even keel while fate occasionally conspires against her.