Kiss Me Kate

[28 July 2003]

By Stephen Tropiano

Retellings

Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter’s musical retelling of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, was the first show to win the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical (plus four others, for Producer, Music and Lyrics, Book, and Costumes). Kate debuted on Broadway in December of 1948 and ran over two years, for a total of 1070 performances.

Producer Saint Stubber reportedly conceived it while working as a stagehand on a Theatre Guild Production of Shrew, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine. He observed how the husband-and-wife acting team’s tumultuous off-stage relationship mirrored that of their onstage counterparts, Petruchio and the tempestuous Kate. His idea served as the basis for Porter’s most successful musical, which he co-wrote with veteran comedy writers Bella and Sam Spewack, themselves separated when they started working on the libretto, yet reconciled as a result of their collaboration.

Some 50 years, one film version, and countless regional and summer stock productions later, Kiss Me Kate returned to Broadway in 1999. The critically acclaimed production, starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie garnered six Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Awards, and five Tonys, including Best Musical Revival and Best Director for Michael Blakemore, who became the first director to win directing statues for both musical and play (Copenhagen) in the same year. The London production of Kate, which opened in 2000, aired in the United States on PBS’ Great Performances and is now available on DVD.

At a time when musicals appear to be making a comeback in the form of TV remakes (like this season’s The Music Man, with Matthew Broderick) and feature films (Chicago, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture), it’s great to see an effort is also being made to give theatergoers unable to travel to New York or London the chance to see such a stellar revival.

Brent Barrett and Rachel York star as Fred Graham and ex-wife, movie star Lilli Vanessi, who are reunited for a musical production of Shrew conceived and directed by the handsome, egotistical Graham. Lilli is insecure about returning to her theatrical roots, for fear her public will not accept her as a stage actress. She realizes that she may have feelings for her ex-husband and thinks he feels the same way, when she mistakenly gets the flowers he sent to Lois Lane (Nancy Anderson), the former showgirl playing Katherine’s sister, Bianca. Poor Lois has problems of her own. Her on-stage/off-stage lover Bill Calhoun (Michael Berresse) has a gambling problem and signed Fred’s name to a $10,000 I.O.U. To complicate matters further, two thugs (Teddy Kempner and Jack Chissick) arrive backstage, and later onstage, with guns in hand to collect from a totally confused Fred.

Although this mistaken identity plot predates Shakespeare, Bella and Sam Spewack’s book is still fresh and funny. Established playwrights and screenwriters best known for their screwball comedies, like Boy Meets Girl and My Favorite Wife, the Spewacks’ fast-paced dialogue, particularly the verbal sparring between the two couples—Fred & Lilli and Lois & Bill—move the action as offstage complications spill over onstage, culminating with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” a musical tribute to the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon sung by the two thugs, looking comically uncomfortable in their 16th garb.

Although this duet qualifies as the show’s 11 o’clock number (sung before or as the show’s finale), it is only one of the many showstoppers included in Porter’s inventive score. These include the rousing opening number, “Another Openin’, Another Show,” sung by Kaye Brown and the ensemble; “I Hate Men,” in which Lilli (as Katherine) puts her feelings about the opposite sex on the table; Nancy Anderson’s terrific rendition of “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” the occasion for incredible acrobatic dancing by Barresse and two members of the ensemble, and “Always True to You (in My Fashion),” in which Lois confesses to Bill that, while she is sometimes less than true, she still loves him.

In spite of Porter’s clever use of sexual entendres, Kiss Me Kate may seem a bit old-fashioned for today’s audiences, particularly compared to another recent backstage musical, Mel Brooks’ campy stage version of The Producers. But there’s something refreshing about a musical comedy that doesn’t milk its situations or rely on shtick to entertain. More importantly, this DVD will make this latest version of Kiss Me Kate widely available to new audiences.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/kiss-me-kate/