Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sorry About 'Kiss Me, Kate'

Kiss Me, Kate is one of my all-time favorites in the Broadway musical comedy world. Cole Porter showed that he could write a new-fangled musical, post Oklahoma, in which the songs advanced the plot. At the same time, he outdid himself in composing marvelous tunes and the cleverest of lyrics, having no less than Shakespeare to play off.

So I saw the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production here in D.C., after a glowing Washington Post review, and alas, the production was all wrong. The director, Alan Paul, misconceived the show entirely.  The dancers were excellent and Clive Alves, playing the Bill who can't behave, was athletic and amazing as anyone playing the role should be. But the show leered. "Too Darn Hot" was subsumed by suggestive moves and one of Porter's sharpest songs, Bianca/Lisa singing "Always True to You Darling, in My Fashion," was belted out emphasizing the sex at the expense of the shrewd lyrics that always ride the line and don't go over into burlesque.

All the leads were over-amped and they compounded the sin by screaming or shouting, exposing their limits as singers. In the first act, I thought Douglas Sills as Fred/ Petruchio used his fine diction to stand out from the rest but in the second, he fell into the same pattern of pushing up the volume, thus demonstrating his limitations. Christine Sherrill, the Lilli/Kate of the show, made her vocal deficiencies all too evident after seeming to hit the right tone at the start of "So in Love."

The sets and costumes were fine, using the original 40s motif; also on the plus side were the best of this bunch, the two gangsters who turn up near the close to shine in Porter's most memorable creation here: "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."  Yet even they, after a strong beginning, let their diction falter in the last few verses; this is a song where you need to get every well-chosen word.

I saw the revival in New York sixteen years ago with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, both of whom have gone on to more successes and recognition since that early starring opportunity.  They were excellent, as was the Broadway cast. Even my daughter's school production (she shone in the small part of the stage doorman) showed better understanding of how to present this show in its best light.

So I will listen to some recordings I have of the original lead, Alfred Drake, employing his warm baritone to great effect, and Lisa Kirk doing full justice to "Always True to You"--the MGM (naturally) movie had its moments as well, most amusingly when the studio confirmed its belief that everyone on the studio payroll had to sing and dance by casting the fine actors Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore as the "Brush Up" gangsters. It was likely the first time either had been asked to sing or dance on stage or screen.

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