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Built on the bones of a Shakespeare comedy and fleshed out with tunes by Cole Porter, that smoothest of American songwriters, Kiss Me, Kate by rights ought to be an end in itself, impervious to the talent that takes it up. But the musical’s 1948 vintagealong with the fierce protectionism that has famously attended attempts to update Sam and Bella Spewack’s bookhas doomed it to remain no more than a glittering entertainment, a splendidly constructed vehicle that nevertheless succeeds or fails on the merits of the stars at its center.
And so the smartness of Michael Blakemore’s revival and the choreographic delights conjured by the miraculous Kathleen Marshall, the saucy charm of the ingénue and the boyishly hunky appeal of her hapless love interest, the suavity and sly innuendo of Porter’s lyrics and the infectious swing of some of his most intoxicating tunesall these were jewels pendent on the more-than-mortal personages of Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell when Kate dazzled her way back onto Broadway a couple of seasons ago. At the Kennedy Center, in a slimmed-down but still substantially entertaining road production, Rachel York and Rex Smith wear the same creative gems like talented kids cavorting in the castoff trinkets of movie-star parents.
The Spewacks’ romp of a story still holds more or less togetherthough bits of it, as ever, make only the barest of sense: Egomaniacal stage star Fred Graham is reunited with Lilli Vanessi, the leading lady who left him for a stab at screen stardom, in a musical retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, and their still-simmering romantic feelings (plus Fred’s amorous inclinations for the pert blond nightclub singer getting her big break as Bianca) create as much heat and havoc in the wings as Petruchio ever dreamed of doing in Padua. One subplot involves gambling and gangsters (“Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is its priceless payoff); another turns on Lilli’s plans for wedded bliss with a new beau (a powerful Washington influence-peddler in the original, he’s a broad parody of Gen. Douglas MacArthur now, presumably on the assumption that no one remembers why jokes at Bernard Baruch’s expense were funny).
The Shrew-within-a-show is still a riot of splashy sequences and intentionally suspect taste, all shaky sets and conspicuous codpieces and choruses of grape-stomping village virgins. Fred, credited as adaptor and producer of this bit of hack work, takes as many cues from the Shuberts as from Shakespearewhich makes for delightfully lighthearted numbers on the order of “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” and “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua.” Bianca’s “Tom, Dick or Harry” is the giddy high point, a gotta-getta-man showpiece that choreographer Marshall and an athletically gifted ensemble build into an out-and-out showstopper.
Likewise, the backstage sequences are still a smart mix of lively farce and full-hearted sentimentality, with tunes that turn on the proverbial dime from madly clever (“Always True to You (In My Fashion),” “Too Darn Hot”) to swooningly romantic (“So in Love”). It’s hard to think of a more sumptuous melody than that last, just as it’s hard to think of another songwriter with both the nerve to quote his own lyric and the style to make it seem smarta trick Porter manages effortlessly, almost in passing, with a reference to “Begin the Beguine” during the introduction to “From This Moment On.”
And yet the parts add up to a whole that’s merely an agreeable diversion. The fault doesn’t lie with Jim Newman, who plays Bill Calhoun as a lovable loser and Lucentio as a broad-shouldered, sweetly smiling swain more than worthy of winning the beautiful Bianca. Certainly it can’t be placed at the feet of his paramour; Nancy Anderson matches Newman’s panache and precision in that scintillating “Tom, Dick or Harry,” going on to top him (and herself, too) by tossing off an “Always True to You” that turns that perilously witty paean to promiscuity into a case study in smart comic timing.
Even York, the Scarlet Pimpernel veteran who’s traded up from Frank Wildhorn’s saccharine banalities to Porter’s tricky rhymes, isn’t so much to blame. She has the outward signs of diva temperament down cold, and her voice is more or less equal to the score’s demands; she even conjures a respectable roar in Kate’s showy “I Hate Men.” She’s just not quite got that ineffable quality that instantly says starwhich means she doesn’t quite seem to fill Lilli Vanessi’s impossibly glamorous Dior-inspired ensembles. (Washington’s more ambitious drag queens and society wives will no doubt be elbowing each other aside for the opportunity to relieve York of the glossy black feathered chapeau that makes her first entrance so momentous.)
No, the empty spot where the center of Kiss Me, Kate should be is the one occupied, as if by an overeager understudy, by the wan presence of Smith, another Pimpernel alumnus and a faded star of ’80s teen pop. He has a voice, certainly, but not the one required by his part; he has some magnetism, yes, but barely that of a celebrity, and decidedly not that of a genuine star.
Smith works very hard, it’s true, to sell Petruchio’s two bravura showpieces, and every second of the work is painfully evidentin his labored posturings, in his overly fast vibrato, in the way he tries to force resonance and heft into his admittedly pretty baritone. You can see him trying to signify creative temperamentwhich is sad; on certain of the money notes, you can literally hear him trying to imitate Mitchell’s knee-weakening soundwhich is positively suicidal.
Only midway through Act 2 does he succeed in making the part briefly his own, with a sweetly yearning take on the lyrical reprise of “So in Love” that spotlights him squarely in the center of a darkened stageand hell, with that kind of help, practically anybody can be a star. CP