Kelli O’Hara is sprawled across the front of the stage at Studio 54, making a meal of “I Hate Men,” truly an anthem for our times.
“I hate the most the athlete with his manner bold and brassy,” she sings, as if referring directly to the gay thots of Instagram. “He may have hair upon his chest but, sister, so has Lassie!” The defiant melody from her title character provides the most satisfying bite of Roundabout Theatre Company’s altogether delectable production of Kiss Me, Kate, which opened on Broadway tonight.
The revival seems to prove, yet again, that it’s possible for a visionary creative team to whip up a fresh confection from ingredients that have surely passed their expiration date. (See also: My Fair Lady, currently running at Lincoln Center.)
Though Cole Porter favorites like “Wunderbar” and “Too Darn Hot” may be timeless musical theatre standards, they are also entirely incidental to the story by Sam and Bella Spewack, which presents a willful and self-possessed woman as a problem simply in need of the right fella.
Shakespeare calls her an “irksome, brawling scold” and a “wildcat” in The Taming of the Shrew. O’Hara’s Kate isn’t nearly as extreme as all that, just a show business diva with a chip on her shoulder and bad taste in men. She’s co-starring with her ex (played by Will Chase) in a musical production of that play, when an off-stage betrayal turns their on-stage drama as dueling lovers into all-out war. Gambling debt, gangsters, and a secondary love plot between the superb Corbin Bleu and Stephanie Styles fuel the classic backstage drama.
Director Scott Ellis, who’s proven his hand at irresistible takes on old-fashioned material, including 2016’s She Loves Me, dishes up gobs of flash and sizzle. Dazzling choreography by Warren Carlyle does, too — watch for a number that sends Bleu tapping from floor to ceiling and a scorching “Too Darn Hot” that somehow manages to feel both languid and propulsive. David Rockwell’s scenic design makes fast and beautiful work of countless shifts between scenes on stage, backstage, and inside star dressing rooms.
Ellis smartly finesses the dated story so that our sympathies lie firmly with its heroine. Composer and lyricist Amanda Green is also credited with providing additional material, to edit and smooth the musical’s more arcane edges.
But the production shines thanks in large part to O’Hara, who remains one of the finest vocalists working today, her operatic honey tones perfectly suited to the bygone era of musical theatre that’s come to define her career, from The Pajama Game to The King and I. Though it’s clear Kate deserves better than to bounce between the arms of lousy men, O’Hara breathes such life into her that it’s easy to forgive the character’s flaws — which are, in any case, the fault of her creators.
When Kate ultimately returns to her ex, having briefly run off with a man whose only purpose is to prove worse than what she’s got, their reunion feels like a deflation. “Mates, hold your temper and meekly put your hand ‘neath the sole of your lover’s foot,” she sings. Gone is the Kate who walloped her soon-to-be husband’s ass so hard he could hardly sit down. Here is Kate the vessel that even a clever reimagining can’t fill. “My hand is ready.” If only it were poised to write a musical worthy of a headstrong woman who has no need of being tamed.
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(photos: joan marcus)