The nights draw in early in a London winter, which is just one of many reasons why “Kiss Me, Kate” couldn’t have arrived on the West End a moment too soon: Michael Blakemore’s deliriously entertaining revival spreads no shortage of sun. On Broadway, the same production has become a symbol of the theater’s resilience post-Sept. 11, with cast and crew banding together to take pay cuts to ensure that the musical played out its run through the end of the year. The show’s symbolic value in London is somewhat different, if no less potent: In a city whose song-and-dance industry is seemingly paralyzed by flop after flop, “Kate’s” confidence and brio seem like something from a different culture — which, given the invaluable presence of four top-rank American leads, it is.
It will be instructive to return to the production by that point next spring when the American visitors have gone home, since they are the undoubted occasion of a revival that looks set to take the town as no musical has since “My Fair Lady.” The producers gambled on importing four Broadway names who aren’t necessarily box office catnip back in New York, let alone London. But just as the local press have praised to the skies the American company in August Wilson’s “Jitney,” now in repertory at the National Theater, so they should exalt the principals here, while extolling a local boy in the London-based Blakemore whose directorial versatility apparently knows no bounds.
The same could be said for Marin Mazzie’s lustrous mezzo, which soars even more limpidly in London than it did at the perf I caught in New York. After making her Broadway reputation via one stiffly emblematic character after another (her role in “Ragtime” even came with the generic name of Mother), Mazzie here looks as thrilled as the audience to be able finally to let loose in such high style. Blessed with a mouth that looks as if it could devour the Victoria Palace whole, she has a field day trilling the octaves on the title song, her previous “I Hate Men” a ceaseless cavalcade of business accompanied, yet again, by that mouth nearly engulfing the stage with comic spleen.
Her co-star, Brent Barrett, doesn’t possess the ineffable “dude” factor of Brian Stokes Mitchell’s down-and-dirty Fred Graham/Petruchio; Barrett’s refinement (not to mention his hairstyle) are of a rather old-fashioned matinee idol sort. But that’s no hindrance to this timeless musical, especially when it comes with a voice richly capable of enfolding itself around the requiem for vanished hi-jinks that is “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” or partnering Mazzie on a ravishing “Wunderbar.”
And Mazzie and Barrett acquit themselves so well in the “Taming of the Shrew” book scenes that they might want to hotfoot it at the end of their run over to Shakespeare’s Globe.
On the other hand, I’m not sure Michael Berresse or Nancy Anderson will soon look so fully at home anywhere else. Berresse is so accomplished a mover that his “Bianca” deflects attention away from some of Porter’s less felicitous lyrics and toward gymnastic feats that wouldn’t go amiss in Cirque de Soleil. There’s nothing Bill Calhoun wouldn’t do, or so Berresse sings during “Bianca,” before his body takes off in equal defiance.
Anderson — an alumna of this show on the road — puts one in mind of Bernadette Peters’ cascading ringlets and sass, switching accents, walks and even (how is it possible?) dimples to turn “Always True to You (In My Fashion)” into a bona fide star turn. (Oddly, however, Lois Lane’s early grammar jokes fall flat: Can it be that the British — heaven forfend — don’t get them?)
Few of the British company as yet give off the Americans’ effortless spark. Leading “Too Darn Hot,” the spindly Nolan Frederick can maneuver choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s witty steps, but he doesn’t connect with the audience much beyond the inevitable frozen grin.
Kaye E. Brown’s Hattie hasn’t nailed either the authority or the accent to really deliver “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” with even the “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” duo of Teddy Kempner and Jack Chissick struggling somewhat to merit a third encore that was simply a given in New York. (Chissick, however, does cut a very funny figure as a suddenly stage-struck thug who can’t get enough of the audience.)
Perhaps, in light of the company they are keeping, anyone else is likely to seem a distraction from the central pleasures at hand, which include a production itself capable of the “new note of softness” that Fred late on finds in Lilli. (The Broadway perf I attended was far broader.) Let’s just say that one melts in this leading quartet’s company long before Lilli melts in (mock?) obeisance to Fred amid a “Kiss Me, Kate” that — we can only hope — London will claim for keeps.