Another op’nin’, yes, but “Kiss Me, Kate” is hardly just another show. Boasting the great Cole Porter’s greatest score, the musical has been absent from Broadway in the half-century since its 1951 closing. Has it weathered the decades with grace? Actually, as the nimble new revival at the Martin Beck Theater begins to work its adorable magic, the question hardly arises. Contemporary reality melts away, thoughts of the plaguing new millennium recede, and the audience is transported back to the days when the Broadway musical was a land of easygoing enchantment, where trifling romantic shenanigans and comic shtick were spun into gold-plated entertainment, borne aloft on melodies as hummable as they were durable, and lyrics that tickled all the way home.
The past can be a pretty wonderful place to visit, and the genius of Michael Blakemore’s new “Kiss Me, Kate” is it is content to give us the old “Kiss Me, Kate,” with no apologies made for loose ends, thin characters, pat endings. With an assist from John Guare, Blakemore has spruced up Sam and Bella Spewack’s original book with a few sly jokes that bear a recent date-stamp, but the musical’s plot is still a bantamweight sparring with a heavyweight score. The discrepancy is as immaterial now as it was then: With two bright new Broadway stars blessed with heaven-sent voices center stage, “Kiss Me, Kate” is a trip to the moon. Who cares if the vehicle of transportation isn’t this year’s model?
Those celestial voices belong to Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell, erstwhile co-stars in the ensemble musical “Ragtime” who here get the starring roles they richly deserve. They play actors Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, formerly married, currently at daggers drawn, and thrown together by circumstances in a touring musical adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” that’s bogged down in Baltimore.
Buried beneath the surface enmity between these two are the embers of lingering affection, of course, but this rekindling love, ignited in song through the mock-nostalgic waltz “Wunderbar,” is thrown comfortably off course when a bouquet intended for Fred’s new plaything, the ingenue Lois Lane (Amy Spanger), falls into Lilli’s hands. Much mayhem ensues, nudged along by a pair of poker-faced gangsters played with impeccable deadpan poise by Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren.
The show’s ingenious, nearly perfect first act contains generous doses of the singing “Shrew,” with book by the Bard, and songs by Porter that contain some of his most inventive lyrics. Porter’s rhyming genius seems to have been inspired particularly by the chance to dabble in an Elizabethan thesaurus, and by the dual nature of the show itself, in which life imitates art offstage and art imitates life onstage.
Mitchell and Mazzie are playing old-fashioned stereotypes, the imperious stage stars of yore who were presumed to perform with as much flamboyance and self-involvement offstage as on (the story was inspired by backstage tales of the Lunts). They seem a trifle stiff at first inside the arch contours of these roles, but Porter’s songs soon loosen them up. (How could they not?)
Mazzie has the angular, icy beauty that befits a movie queen of the period, and looks smashing in the faux Dior suit in which she takes the stage (everyone, in fact, is better served by Martin Pakledinaz’s 1940s costumes than his garish, distracting costumes for the “Shrew” scenes). But her pure and versatile soprano is Mazzie’s most marvelous attribute. She can communicate the torchy emotion of “So in Love” as ably as she spins out the Jenny Lind-style coloratura required for the first act finale, which contains a dazzling vocal duet with a flute. A quibble: Her broad comic take on Porter’s ode to male odiousness, “I Hate Men,” wows the crowd, but the song’s wit would shine just as clearly if she didn’t underline it so strenuously. (At times such as this, the spirit of Lucille Ball seems to be hovering over the production, which also includes a goofy grape-crushing dance sequence.)
Mitchell is simply the finest Broadway baritone of his generation — and probably several others, to boot. Add to his plush voice a commanding, glamorous presence and a quizzical eyebrow made for just such hijinks as the plot serves up, and the result is a performance to treasure from a leading man who could single-handedly bring back the era of the matinee idol.
Spanger is also a splendid singer, who gives a vampy reading of “Always True to You (in My Fashion).” She does not, however, capitalize on all the comic possibilities of a role that could be a star maker (Lisa Kirk’s performance in the original is more vivid, even via recordings). As Lois’ ne’er-do-well boyfriend, Michael Berresse, an able dancer with a devilish grin and abundant, wiry energy, is saddled with one of the score’s weaker tunes, “Bianca,” but choreographer Kathleen Marshall, doing her finest work yet, lets him end his solo with a breathtaking gymnastic feat.
Aside from a slow few opening minutes, there aren’t any dead spots in the show’s nearly three hours. Blakemore is a masterly director of comedy, and helps Wilkof and Mulheren turn their dim, flat-footed gangsters into wry comic gems, with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” neatly functioning as their own personal curtain call. Ronald Holgate also hits the bull’s-eye as the pompous general to whom Lilli is betrothed (although the interpolation of a “From This Moment On” as a comic duet for Lilli and the general simply doesn’t work).
One might have hoped for more inspiration from Robin Wagner’s serviceable sets, but they are in keeping with an overall aesthetic that doesn’t seek to mask the show’s origins in a specific time and place. Also a specific feeling: The crowning achievement of Cole Porter’s long and celebrated career on Broadway, “Kiss Me, Kate” is a valentine to stage folk, a love letter in song linking Shakespeare and showbiz. In this musically resplendent new revival — final tributes to ace musical director Paul Gemignani and Don Sebesky’s agile orchestrations — the variously sweet, saucy and silly sounds of its affection are eternally gratifying.