The touring version of the hit Broadway revival “Kiss Me, Kate” is a vibrant, colorful and occasionally exhilarating evening, even if there’s some iffy lead casting and a muffled sound design that keep it from soaring as often as it should, and could. This is a show that tends to peak at odd times and rarely at the narrative climaxes, but when it peaks — and oh, at the start of the second act, it does — it peaks persuasively, providing the kind of lasting musical theater thrill that most contemporary shows seem to have abandoned.
“Kiss Me, Kate” is almost three hours long, but it goes by quite quickly.
Michael Blakemore won the Tony Award for his direction — that was the year he doubled in the directing category, taking home the Tony for “Copenhagen,” too. The accolade was deserved for two achievements in this production: the pacing, which is unrelenting but not forced, and the harmonic convergence between the rich Cole Porter melodies — one after the other after the other — and the rest of the production elements (Kathleen Marshall’s choreography, Paul Gemignani’s musical direction, Robin Wagner’s set, Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes). This production seems to be humming along to the tunes even when nobody’s singing.
It’s a good thing too, because to be frank, “Kiss Me, Kate” needs lots of pizzazz or it could bog down in a hurry. While Samuel and Bella Spewack’s book manages to keep the hard-to-handle show-within-a-show plotline coherent, and, even more importantly, connect the tunes adequately, the best moments (at least in this version) have nothing to do with the story at all. They could be discarded without having the slightest impact on the onstage shenanigans of “Taming of the Shrew’s” Petruchio and Kate, or the offstage shenanigans of the performers who play them, director Fred Graham and film star Lilli Vanessi.
Rex Smith and Rachel York, who play these dueling dual lead roles, aren’t even in sight when “Kiss Me Kate” is at its very best. That happens with the number “Too Darn Hot,” which begins — so very slowly — as the audience filters back in after intermission. Randy Donaldson, who’s barely noticeable in the first half of the show, leads the ensemble in this jazzy, vigorously performed song, always making it look effortless even as he builds to a wondrous crescendo. Everything about this number is just right; it feels extremely alive, modern in its musicality and sense of movement.
The other best moment arrives just a little while later, when Nancy Anderson, as the willing-to-do-anything-for-stardom Lois Lane, sings “Always True to You (In My Fashion)” with a subtle and very expressive vibrato, taking command of the whole stage by her little lonesome. But For some reason, Tony Meola’s sound design has a muted quality, so charisma becomes even more important to give the songs their zest. Anderson’s got it.
Rex Smith, unfortunately, doesn’t. His presence has a milquetoast quality, functional but bland, and he’s really just not right for this role. The problem isn’t musical: He sings the songs lovingly and tunefully but not very forcefully. As Graham, though, he just never seems much of a match for Lilli. Remember, this is the man who tames the shrew, but throughout this production there never seems a question that the shrew could shred him to bits. I found myself rooting for Lilli to end up with the buffoonish military man Harrison Howell (a nicely overblown Chuck Wagner) rather than return to Smith’s Graham, who’s all hamminess with no performative chops to back it up.
There’s little chemistry between Smith and York, so Porter’s love songs never come to life. York delivers the anthem of shrewishness “I Hate Men” deliciously and captures Lilli’s spoiled tantrums without going over the top, but she’s hampered in much of the speaking scenes by not having enough coming at her against which she can react.
It’s striking that “Kiss Me, Kate” can still manage to be so much fun when its central relationship isn’t working on all cylinders. That says an awful lot about the depth of this score, this ensemble and this production.