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Review: A Fair Fight Makes ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ Lovable Again

They may have lived in unenlightened times, but the men and women behind “Kiss Me, Kate” still knew plenty about the compromises of marriage.

Take Cole Porter, who wrote the 1948 musical’s peerlessly witty songs. Though gay, he wived it wealthily (and happily) with the socialite Linda Lee Thomas.

Not so blithe were his book writers: Bella Spewack was pressured to share credit with Samuel Spewack, her estranged husband, even though she did most of the work.

You could even count Lilli and Fred, the show’s lead characters: flamboyant exes who star as Katharine and Petruchio in a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” They are named for the Lunts, Lynn and Alfred, married actors who made Broadway meals of the same Shakespearean roles, catfighting onstage and off.

And let’s not forget Shakespeare himself. In one of the world’s great exit lines he willed his wife his second-best bed.

I raise all this marital prehistory not to excuse the elements of the original “Kiss Me, Kate” that rankle our sensibilities today — its gender stereotypes and wife-slapping argument for womanly submission — but to suggest how the latest Broadway revival, which opened on Thursday in a production starring the sublime Kelli O’Hara, could be so enjoyable anyway.

Turns out, the authors’ take on marriage is more complex and insightful than we may recall. And where they did wander into material now rightly seen as toxic, a few changes in emphasis and one major revision allow us to enjoy it in a new light, as a two-way “taming,” distorted not by malice but through the mocking filter of farce.

It helps to recall that good farce is always knockabout, regardless of gender; it’s a pleasure to roar at suffering that is big and fake and somebody else’s. “Kiss Me, Kate” is cleverly constructed to provide that pleasure squared. In the outer, backstage story, Lilli (Ms. O’Hara) and Fred (Will Chase) clearly belong together, if only they could stop fighting long enough to notice. In the inner, onstage story, Kate and Petruchio must discover love by discovering themselves, when their psychological armor is at last yanked off them.

The two stories quickly merge, Lilli’s fury over a perceived slight by Fred feeding her performance of Kate’s fury when manhandled by Petruchio. Though even Shakespeare let her fight back, with words and elbows, the serious glee with which Ms. O’Hara pummels Mr. Chase — you could call the show “Kick Me, Kate” — goes a long way toward defanging the usual impression of violence from only the other direction. When Lilli argues that she’s just a “realistic actress,” we can’t fault Fred for responding, “You’re a thug!”

What she isn’t, in Ms. O’Hara’s interpretation, is a punching bag or a flirt. Her Lilli, more refined and less broadly comic than some, is a haughty diva who must learn humility, not because she’s a woman but because she’s too proud. How she got that way is never really explained, any more than the source of Kate’s “irksome, brawling” nature is in Shakespeare. But we see the answer in Ms. O’Hara’s cautious eyes, always on the lookout for adoration or mistreatment — and, men being what they are, often finding both.

We also hear the contradiction in her delicious renditions of the Porter songs, so that a merry operetta spoof like “Wunderbar” hints at ambivalence, and a formal beguine like “So in Love,” sung so gorgeously it almost melts the theater, touches a kind of terror. Even her scalding take on Kate’s “I Hate Men” (“he may have hair upon his chest but, sister, so has Lassie”) is subtly shaded to demonstrate that hate is only part of the problem.

If no one else is singing at that level — Mr. Chase, charmingly vain in the book scenes, lacks only the effortlessness necessary to ace his numbers — Porter’s score remains an astonishing encyclopedia of musical comedy style. (The new orchestrations by Larry Hochman are a noticeable improvement on those used in the 1999 revival starring Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell.) Zooming through time from Italianate pavanes to Latin pastiche to vaudeville turns to “hot” jazz and beyond, the songs, in their variety, establish the idea that different eras bring different perspectives on love to the table.

Directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, the Roundabout Theater Company production at Studio 54 embraces the same shifting of perspective throughout. David Rockwell’s sets, in a naturalistic mode for the backstage scenes, flip back several eras to primitive painted borders and cutout flats for the “Shrew” material. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes toggle among Renaissance motley, 1950s casuals and timelessly smashing outfits for Lilli.

Likewise, Mr. Carlyle’s often thrilling choreography offers a bountiful assortment of takes on male-female physicality. Lilli and Fred waltz to “Wunderbar” but the ensemble, led by James T. Lane, do precoital Fosse-esque beatnik moves to “Too Darn Hot.” (Fosse was jaw-dropping in the 1953 movie.) In “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” Kate’s sister, Bianca (Stephanie Styles), and her three suitors (Corbin Bleu, Will Burton and Rick Faugno) thrill in the midcentury MGM style.

That too many other numbers disappoint is a problem not just with the choreography but also with the overall staging, which by the middle of the second act seems to run out of invention. In the song “Bianca,” Mr. Bleu executes amazing calisthenic feats (at one point he tap dances upside-down beneath a stair landing), but the big picture gets lost. The wit of Bianca’s “Always True to You in My Fashion” disappears amid too much stage business. And “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” usually a double-entendre showstopper for two comic gangsters (John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams), just slows the show down instead.

John Guare’s 1999 script revisions, retained here, don’t help. That production bumped up the role of Harrison Howell, Lilli’s fiancé, from vague Southern gentleman to MacArthur-like general. Meant to highlight Lilli’s choice between safe conformity and difficult freedom, the character still feels as shoehorned as the Porter standard (“From This Moment On”) interpolated for him to sing.

But the revisions made for the current production are more sensitively achieved. In the simplest, a framing device invoking the ghostliness of the empty stage establishes the show as a theatrical throwback. The biggest comes at the end, when the lyrics to Kate’s song “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” which Porter largely lifted from Shakespeare, get a heavy reworking. (Amanda Green is credited with “additional material.”) Now it’s “people” who are so simple, and not just women but all lovers who must learn subservience.

Purists may squawk — though similar changes have long since shown up in feminist productions of “The Taming of the Shrew.” For me, the adjustments, especially Ms. Green’s and Ms. O’Hara’s, are completely successful. They not only reorient the story as a warning to all sexes, but also provide a workaround for a musical that our cancel culture seemed ready to throw on the bonfire of the inanities.

How nice to find “Kiss Me, Kate” rescued from that fate: still speaking to us — or better yet, singing — from the not so buried past.



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