Kiss Me, Kate, opening in December 1948, racked up 1,077 performances and was Cole Porter’s biggest hit, but not his best work. Sam and Bella Spewack’s book concerns a famous acting couple, the now-divorced Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, doing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew on a hot June night in Baltimore and fighting equally offstage and on. This was based on something that really happened to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. But the Spewacks’ book was only moderately funny, and its current refurbishing by Anonymous is scarcely better. He is said to be one of our leading playwrights, who may have reasons transcending merely legal ones for his incognito.
The book never established Fred and Lilli as living legends against which their present bickering would resonate dramatically. The Spewacks’ idea of a funny name for the ingenue was to steal Lois Lane from Superman. For Lilli’s other man, they devised a stodgy Republican congressman who plans his day to the minute. Anonymous (who seems to share initials with John Galsworthy) comes up with a lumbering parody of Douglas MacArthur, complete with his corncob pipe inflated to the size of the sledgehammer with which jokes are driven home here.
I wonder whether the Spewacks’ real inspiration came not from the Lunts but from a 1937 movie, It’s Love I’m After, starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis and much funnier than Kiss Me, Kate. Cole Porter’s score is nice but spotty. The famous “Wunderbar,” meant to be both parody of Viennese operetta and delightful in its own right, suffers from split personality. Kate’s “I Hate Men” is also a takeoff on Teutonic tankard-banging songs, and not much else. Poorer yet is Kate’s final number, “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” where Porter used Shakespeare as his lyricist and evidently found him less congenial than himself.
Other songs are superior, notably the ballad “So in Love,” although its reprise, played for Fred’s self-pity, falls flat. Petruchio’s “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” was wunderbar when the great Alfred Drake did it in 1948 with one foot on a stool and with minimal theatrics but maximal artistry and charm. It loses a lot when the charmless incumbent wallows on a tabletop like a demented gymnast. Brian Stokes Mitchell, our Fred, better at Coalhouse than at Cole, is competent and assiduous but lacking the magnetism sufficient to fasten a recipe to a refrigerator. (Today only Kevin Kline could make this part his own.) As Lilli, the attractive Marin Mazzie similarly lacks Patricia Morison’s poise and comic expertise. She sings well but opens her mouth peculiarly, like a garage door going up while its mirror image goes equally squarely down.
The ingenue, Amy Spanger, is interesting only insofar as she keeps one guessing how she got the part. Unencumbered by any special talent, she does, however, have a face a nutcracker would envy. The juvenile, Michael Berresse, performs one stupendous acrobatic feat, albeit more appropriate to a circus. Otherwise, he exudes a blend of spinelessness and sleaze to send Lois Lane panting even after Clark Kent. As the MacArthur caricature, Ron Holgate recycles his Miles Gloriosus from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an act of self-plagiarism that never pays off.
The true virtues of the revival are peripheral. As the gangsters hounding Fred who get hooked on the Bard and sing (however out of character it is) “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” Michael Mulheren and Lee Wilkof practically hijack the show, earning by far the biggest ovation, which speaks well for them and poorly for the rest. Notable, too, is John Horton, who, true Shakespearean that he is, manages to make the non-singing Baptista very nearly the comic cynosure of the evening.
The gifted director, Michael Blakemore, has worked hard but without reaching his imaginative heights – think City of Angels. Kathleen Marshall’s choreography starts sluggishly, perks up in “Too Darn Hot” – overlong but lively, and expertly danced by Stanley Wayne Mathis – then reverts to the merely serviceable. That is the word also for Robin Wagner’s sometimes monumental but slightly schematic scenery and for Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, which doesn’t even conjure up the heat for “Too Darn Hot.” The good Martin Pakledinaz fumbles the costumes, as when he saddles Petruchio with a ghastly flying saucer of a hat as his normal headgear, then dresses him less weirdly when he means to be outrageous.
Those responsible for Kiss Me, Kate seem to have mistakenly based it on a line from The Comedy of Errors: “But though my cates be mean, take them in good part.” That way lies error, not comedy. Or was I watching, as transplanted from Buffalo, Moon Over Baltimore?