Something about a musical-within-a-musical makes it irresistible. From “Crazy for You” and “A Chorus Line” to “Annie Get Your Gun,” “42nd Street” and “The Producers,” we seem to bestow a particular warmth on shows that take us backstage and into the personal lives of the characters we glimpse in the footlights.
“Kiss Me, Kate,” written in 1948 and featuring devilishly witty songs by Cole Porter, is another delectable entry in this category. The musical has its corny moments, takes its sweet time getting started and has some music that is too clever by half, but “Kiss Me Kate” is more than the sum of its parts.
It is grand, hammy fun. The touring version of this Broadway revival can be seen at the Kennedy Center through Aug. 5.
This musical version of William Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” uses that play as its central conceit. Fred Graham (Rex Smith), a theater impresario so full of himself he stars in his own productions, gives a brief nod to Shakespeare for providing the book for his latest extravaganza, coincidentally a musical version of “Taming of the Shrew.”
Fred’s show is in previews in Baltimore (fodder for many, many disparaging remarks), and it reunites him with his ex-wife, stage and screen star Lilli Vanessi (Rachel York). The fussing and feuding couple play their equally combative counterpoints onstage as Katharine and Petruchio.
True to form, Fred and Lilli’s rancorous banter disguises their ardor for each other. However, there is trouble in purgatory that could threaten the couple’s loving future: Lilli is all set to marry the Gen. MacArthuresque Harrison Howell (Chuck Wagner), and Fred is being plagued by two gangsters (Richard Poe and Michael Arkin) who have, shall we say, a keen interest in the musical’s success and in following it become intoxicated by show business.
Michael Blakemore’s direction wisely plays up the extravagance of theater folks’ behavior (the inspiration for “Kiss Me, Kate” is said to be the over-the-top mannerisms of American theater pooh-bahs Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) so that no gesture is too overstated, no delivery too booming, no song delivered to anything less than the cheap seats.
It is opera, vaudeville and melodrama rolled into one a hybrid pointed up by the set and costumes, both of which favor unexpected color combinations (burnt sienna with turquoise, for example) that you might see on a harlequin’s tunic.
Few things are more delightful than watching skilled actors play hambones, and “Kiss Me, Kate” is full of such tongue-in-cheek narcissism, giving the show an unashamed vitality and robustness.
If you have seen the 1953 movie “Kiss Me, Kate,” starring a tap-dancing Ann Miller (and a very young Bob Fosse moving with feline grace) you may not remember the show as being so sexy. That may have to do with the revival’s choreographer, Kathleen Marshall, whose dances celebrate the ripe sensuousness of bodies in motion.
Miss Marshall’s choreography is at turns frisky and flippy (literally, since many of the numbers feature circuslike acrobatics), exuding a hale sexiness that is at its zenith in the second-act opener, “Too Darn Hot,” which has the chorus executing meltingly steamy moves.
Mr. Smith seems to be having a grand old time playing Fred/Petruchio with enthusiastic extravagance. With arms thrust out in a declamatory pose or hands proudly slapped on his hips, Mr. Smith acquits himself well in his singing. His pleasant voice lends a whit of wistfulness to the songs “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?”
Mr. Smith, however, is blown off the stage by Miss York, who possesses a voice that is at turns smoky and soaring. She is spectacularly overdramatic, twisting her comely features into an endless variety of ugly faces, especially in the tour-de-force number “I Hate Men” (which includes the indelible moment when Katharine disdains the fact that Petrucio has abundant hair on his chest, noting, “so does Lassie”). Miss York sings, has a grand temper tantrum and pulls off a strenuous acrobatic routine all at the same time.
Similarly memorable are Mr. Poe and Mr. Wagner as the star-struck gangsters, who appear onstage looking like something out of a Maxfield Parrish illustration. Their show-stopping moment is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” in which they advise using quotations to get very familiar with the object of your affection. The bawdy innuendos come fast and furious. Suffice it to say you will never think of “Measure for Measure” and “Coriolanus” in the same way.
Nancy Anderson gives an energetic fillip to the stock role of the gold-digger starlet. Miss Anderson is both hubba-hubba and refreshingly smart in the number “Tom, Dick or Harry” and frankly adorable in “Always True to You (in My Fashion).”
If “Kiss Me Kate” suffers from anything, it is an embarrassment of cleverness. There are choruses upon choruses, as if Cole Porter, who wrote the music and lyrics, is challenging himself to giddier heights of wit and unexpected rhyme. But the songs sometimes feel protracted and padded. The production also has an awful lot of repetition, especially in the languid opening number, “Another Op’nin, Another Show.”
Then you think: All entertainment should have such problems. In this time of bathroom jokes and profanity-sodden humor, to have “Kiss Me, Kate” pushing the extremes of wit is a luxury.
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WHAT: “Kiss Me, Kate”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and July 30; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and Aug. 1 through 5
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
TICKETS: $20 to $79
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS