A few days after the first press performance of Kiss Me, Kate, a Voice colleague stopped me in the hall and said, almost furtively, “I’m not supposed to like it, right?” “What do you mean, you’re not supposed to like it?” I answered, staring at her in puzzlement. “It’s Kiss Me, Kate. What’s not to like?” I was oversimplifying: If you’re in an argumentative mood, there are plenty of little things not to like about the current revival of Kiss Me, Kate. But it’s hard to stay in an argumentative mood: Unlike the revisionist well-poisonings that mostly pass for revivals on Broadway, this production is interested in preserving the work, not despoiling it. The perpetrators may have tried a fiddle here and a faddle there, and I may wish they hadn’t, but mainly what you get is the work Cole Porter and the Spewacks wrote. And you can’t beat that; it’s Kiss Me, Kate.
What freed Porter’s creativity, to make him a player in the new game the musical theater had become after Oklahoma!, was, most importantly, Shakespeare. The Spewacks’ notion of ham actors getting their onstage roles mixed up with their offstage lives was hardly new—a would-be tragic version of it, Cukor’s A Double Life, had been Hollywood’s arty prizewinner the year before—but it made Porter stretch his tunesmithing habits into a musical idiom that could travel all the way from blank verse into hipster jive and back. Other Cole Porter scores have as many bright melodies and saucy lyrics; none has Kiss Me, Kate’s extraordinary range, from the bop syncopations of “Another Openin’, Another Show” to the mock-Renaissance galliard that rounds off “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” (words wholly by W.S.). Porter shows his poetic acumen not only in the way he merges his varied dictions, sneaking the colloquial into the Shakespearean and vice versa, but in his aptitude for pulling out the themes that link them, making the misogyny, greed, and class snobbery in The Taming of the Shrew spill over to find their parallels in the shenanigans backstage as Fred Graham’s pre-Broadway tour of it, reuniting him with his spiky ex-wife Lilli Vanessi, opens on a hot night in Baltimore.
The Spewacks, with something like Shakespearean ingenuity, gave the setup symmetry by hooking the couple’s spats onto the analogous bickering of the younger dance duo: Fred-Petruchio covets Lois-Bianca, whose gambling hoofer boyfriend, Bill-Lucentio, gets revenge by signing Fred’s name to a hefty IOU held by a local mobster. When Lilli-Kate tries to walk out on the show, summoning her wealthy lobbyist husband-to-be from Washington, Fred uses the mobster’s emissaries to keep her in the theater. Everyone is adult enough for the right couples to get recoupled just in time for the Shrew to reach its happy ending without Lilli’s understudy going on.
That’s what the story of Kiss Me, Kate used to be, anyway. One’s first argument with the new show is over the number of fiddled lines stuck into the script, by an uncredited writer who was no Guare to be seen at the press opening. Unlike other tamperers with the scripts of old musicals, this writer is subtle and inventively funny; while he confines himself to single lines, his interference is more diverting than painful. Only in Act Two does he get carried away: Lilli’s Washington lover is now a military man, a proto-MacArthur and something of a crypto-fascist, who’s been given an extra song. That’s a bad fit for the character, the actor, the situation, and even the dressing-room set. It’s one of the show’s few outright mistakes.
These fancies combine oddly with the production’s other pesky habit, a weird insistence on literalism, as if the audience couldn’t get the point of this old, beloved show unless it were spelled out very slowly. Amy Spanger’s Lois can’t just be sweet and manipulative; to please men, she has to pose as ultra-dumb. Since that’s not how the role’s songs and non-Guare speeches are written, she’s forced to switch characters every five minutes. And is there any lyric in the repertoire that needs an explanatory gesture less than “Kick her right in the Coriolanus”?
Then there’s amplification. One day, the theater will unplug again, and we can hear this score in Robert Russell Bennett’s great orchestration, with unmiked voices. Given present conditions, matters are handled decently enough under Paul Gemignani’s baton. Too much foolery mucks up the musical shape of the first act finale, and someone should find Brian Stokes Mitchell an alternative to the painful high notes at the end of “Were Thine That Special Face.” But then, someone should find Marin Mazzie something to do during “I Hate Men.” Mitchell and Mazzie embody the leads graciously enough, though they come off as very nice people, which isn’t precisely the idea. Similarly, Michael Berresse’s Bill Calhoun seems altogether too gentle a guy to go crap shooting when he’s called for rehearsal. But Berresse has the agility to shinny up a three-story set and look cheerful while hanging by his feet; to ask for acting would be greedy.
As Berresse’s gymnastic feat points up, in a show this rich with possibilities, the small mishandlings can be offset by the sublime added surprises. I haven’t mentioned many of these, while dwelling on the quibbles and objections. But it’s better to put the complaints first: This way, you can go to KMK knowing that some things will be wrong, and have the pleasure of discovering for yourself how incredibly many, 50 years later, are still right. Now if we can just get everyone involved to take out the improvements. . . .
** Maybe they could be transferred to Putting It Together, which could stand a lot of improving, especially its monosyllabic non-book, which cries out for festoons of Guare. And what about some Cole Porter tunes, too, to replace the high-bitch Sondheim indictments we’ve heard too many times, and the recycled Sondheim cutouts we never wanted to hear twice? Because the songs aren’t well chosen, and Paul Raiman’s shoddy musical direction doesn’t show them at their best, the evening makes Sondheim’s work seem dull, a patch of barren ground heavily overworked. Nor does anything about the show make sense as drama, as staging, or as human interaction. The one thing that should be rescued from this sinking Atlantis is the person whose name keeps it afloat: Carol Burnett is funny, alert,vibrant-voiced, and apparently possessed of more energy than her four colleagues combined. For a finale, she takes “Not Getting Married Today” at a slow, steady clip, getting the comic juice out of every line. If Cole Porter were alive, he’d write her a show.