By Christopher Caggiano
The new Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate removes much of the objectionable material — and a lot of the fun
Over the past few Broadway seasons, we’ve seen a number of revivals of classic musicals whose dated sensibilities present challenges to a modern audience. We’ve also seen various efforts to massage these classic shows to lessen any possibility of offense.
Last season’s Carousel struggled, not quite successfully, to redeem a story about a volatile man who beats his wife. The current smash revival of My Fair Lady is somewhat more effective at recasting the story of Eliza Doolittle, presenting it as one in which a woman stuck in an abusive relationship finds her agency.
This season, we have Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Cole Porter’s musical adaptation (to a libretto by Sam and Bella Spewack) of a similarly problematic Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew. In both stories, the lead male browbeats his obstreperous wife into submission, including an onstage spanking and a final scene in which the wife exhorts fellow women to bow to their husbands and “do them ease.” Clearly not a message that resonates soundly in the #MeToo era.
Previous revivals of Kiss Me, Kate have dealt with the problematic ending through staging choices. The 1999 Broadway production starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and the late Marin Mazzie kept the text mostly as it was in 1948, but when the Kate character knelt to her husband, she turned to the audience and winked, as if to say, “You’ve seen me for the last two hours. Do you really think I I’m going to submit to this guy?” A 2014 concert production in London had the Petruchio character stop Kate as she was about to bow and had him bow to her instead.
The current Broadway production (at the Roundabout Theatre Company‘s Studio 54 through June 30) goes considerably beyond staging choices, to the point of making significant alterations to the text. Amanda Green, the daughter of theater legends Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman, has provided what is billed as “additional material,” but what is essentially rewritten lines and lyrics throughout the show. Some changes address outdated stereotypes; a reference to salaries as being “Dutch,” as in stingy, has been replaced with a far more innocuous line.
But the majority of the changes involve potentially offensive lines and actions related to women. For instance, the lyric for “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?,” in which Petruchio claims, with reference to Kate, that he has “oft stuck a pig before,” clearly needed to be replaced. The famed spanking scene is no more, which seems for the best, but the omission did make subsequent lines about certain characters not being able to sit down a bit puzzling.
The most meaningful change is Green’s new lyric for “I’m Shamed that Women Are So Simple,” which becomes “I’m Ashamed That People Are So Simple,” effectively morphing the message of the song from one of submission to one of mutual deference and respect.
Director Scott Ellis clearly worked with Tony winner Kelli O’Hara, who plays actress Lilli Vanessi (who in turn plays Kate in the show within the show) to soften the edges on both women. The goal is to presumably create a kinder, gentler Kiss Me, Kate, but the discipline also spoils a lot of the fun. O’Hara announces from her very entrance that she will not be the playing the diva version of Lilli Vanessi. This Lilli is warmer, less self-absorbed, and not nearly as compelling to watch.
O’Hara is one of the most talented actors currently working in musical theater, but here she is either miscast or misdirected or both. She’s still her ever radiant self, and the production adds some lovely coloratura for her in various places to show off her glittering soprano. But she isn’t Lilli Vanessi.
Perhaps I’m mired in expectations of the traditional spitfire Lilli. But, as a case in point, take the number “I Hate Men,” in which Lilli, playing Kate, launches into one of Porter’s classic comic list songs. The tune is usually a surefire show-stopper. Here, O’Hara gets a solid but polite round of applause and the show moves on.
Incidentally, the eleven o’clock number “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” can normally be counted on to bring down the house: here it comes off as a pleasant but irrelevant diversion.
O’Hara’s leading man, the stalwart Will Chase, comes off considerably better. Chase is reliably sharp and animated and he certainly is here. Chase doesn’t get the credit he deserves as one of Broadway’s most reliable leading men. His strong voice works equally well in rock-inflected scores as it does when he’s singing legit, as he does here. The production would have worked considerably better if O’Hara had inhabited the same hammy, delightfully over-the-top world as Chase.
It would be a shame not to mention Warren’s Carlisle’s vibrant choreography here, particularly in “Too Darn Hot.” I’ve never fully bought the presence of this number in the show. The cast is playing in Baltimore during a heat wave, and they sing a song about how oppressive the heat is. What’s more, they’ve just completed the first act of the musical that they are performing in. Presumably, they are tired. And, instead of collapsing, they bust out into a strenuous dance number?
That said, Carlisle’s work on the number is outstanding, with a wonderful sense of build and a wicked tap section for the remarkable Corbin Bleu as Bill Calhoun. The number fittingly received a thunderous ovation the night I saw the show.
You could certainly do worse in terms of current Broadway productions than Kiss Me, Kate, particularly if you go expecting to be merely diverted rather than fully transported.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.