Fred Graham/Laura Kenyon’s no-nonsense Hattie gets the Goodspeed Opera House revival of Cole Porter’s 1948 “Kiss Me, Kate” off to a buoyant start with a joyfully vigorous “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.” And Mark Lotito and Kevin McClarnon’s hilarious gunman duo herald its finale by deftly proving that “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is virtually foolproof.
Between those two numbers, however, this deeply disappointing production paints a moral with which you cannot quarrel, to cite Ira Gershwin. It’s this: “Kiss Me, Kate” may be Porter’s musical masterpiece, but it’s far from a cinch to revive; presumably the producers of the Broadway-bound revival scheduled to open in Central Park this summer, with Kevin Kline as one of its stars, know this.
The Spewack/Shakespeare book hasn’t weathered the passing years nearly as well as Porter’s witty lyrics and music. And it’s clearly very tricky to strike the right balance between Shakespeare and Broadway, operetta and Tin Pan Alley. Equally important are style, elegance and wit — all missing at the Goodspeed — in the visual and production elements. The original Broadway production’s co-producer and designer, Lemuel Ayers, gave its sets and costumes the ultimate in artistry, as photographs make amply clear.
Ted Pappas has directed the Goodspeed’s “Kiss Me, Kate.” While he had a strong feeling for and a clear point of view on “Promises, Promises,” Goodspeed’s final production last season, he lacks both for “Kate.” The result is a run-of-the-mill 1994 season opener that’s almost never up to the Goodspeed’s own highest standards.
Dramatically it’s bland, and visually it’s exceedingly unattractive, from its alternately drab and lollipop-gaudy sets to its even gaudier and utterly unflattering costumes, many of which are presumably meant to be funny. Included are codpieces for the men and corsets and exposed underwear for the women in the “Taming of the Shrew” musical-within-the-musical. The ludicrous “Shakespearean” hats are particularly unfortunate.
Except for Kenyon, Lotito and McClarnon, the cast lacks presence and style both dramatically and vocally. And in the case of Steve Barton and Marilyn Caskey as the warring yet still-in-love leads, there’s no evidence of romantic attraction. The casting of a white actress as Hattie, a role created by black actresses in the Broadway and London original productions, raises the question of whether it’s been done for so-called politically correct reasons. But surely no African-American performer today would find playing this mind-of-her-own character demeaning.
The orchestrations for the 10-piece orchestra under MichaelO’Flaherty’s alert baton sometimes sound undernourished. The overture sounds newly arranged, opening with references to “Too Darn Hot” rather than the original recording’s “Why Can’t You Behave?” Liza Gennaro’s choreography, inevitably limited by the small stage, runs the gamut from ballet to jazz via leaping, spinning and sliding without having a clear-cut personality of its own, though the “Too Darn Hot” dance number does build to a fine frenzy.
By sad coincidence Saint Subber, the theatrical impresario who provided Porter and the Spewacks with the basic premise of “Kiss Me, Kate” and co-produced it, died on April 19. A more inspired revival of the musical he inspired would be a more fitting tribute.