Caress Me, Kelli

On Tuesday, April 16, as the cast of Kiss Me, Kate took a curtain call at Studio 54 to a thundering ovation, Kelli O’Hara stepped forward and made a pitch for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Then her co-star, Will Chase, joined in to announce that there were two birthdays in the cast that night, Mel Johnson, Jr. and Kelli, and a large cake was brought onstage. The audience wasn’t treated to cake, but we had already enjoyed the gift of Kelli’s immense talent onstage.

 Now 43, she seems to be at the peak of her artistic powers. Kelli is the queen of classic musicals, with six Tony Award nominations in hand, winning Best Lead Actress in a Musical in the 2015 revival of The King and I, and with her role in Kiss Me, Kate she’s destined to receive her seventh. As Kelli has matured, her inherent sweetness has grown into something more varied. In The King and I she showed some starch as Anna, the English governess, and now in Kiss Me, Kate there’s comic venom in her portrayal of the diva Lilli, reuniting onstage with her ex-husband Fred for a tumultuous production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.  Will Chase as Fred/Petruchio with a pencil-thin mustache, a swagger, and a strong voice, is very much Kelli’s match.

Kiss Me, Kate is the quintessential musical comedy, a reliable showcase for singing and acting. It’s got Cole Porter’s exquisite score, chock full of standards: “So in Love,” “Wunderbar,” “From This Moment On,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Always True to You in My Fashion.”  There’s the trademark Porter wit of the operetta pastiche of “I Hate Men,” which allows Kelli to display supernal soprano, and the clever wordplay of “Brush Up, Your Shakespeare,” which John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams as stage-struck gangsters knock out of the park.

It’s the comic streak which separates Kiss Me, Kate from the Rodgers and Hammerstein-style book musicals. (I haven’t seen the acclaimed revival of Oklahoma, but, for what it’s worth, Kelli O’Hara and Kristen Chenoweth are both native Oklahomans.)  Sam and Bella Spewack’s book uses much of Shakespeare verbatim for the play-within-a-play; some of Shakespeare’s more controversial sexism has been updated by an uncredited Amanda Green (daughter of Adolph Green) to make it more palatable for today. Kiss Me, Kate is an elegant cocktail, while I suspect Oklahoma is whiskey neat.

This production is pure show biz: the costumes (by Jeff Mahshie), stage design (by David Rockwell), and direction (by Scott Ellis) are uniformly witty.  The choreography (by Warren Carlyle), is spectacular. The opening number, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” is an unabashed crowd pleaser and the opener to Act II, “Too Darn Hot,” is a full-tilt triumph for Corbin Bleu, James T. Lane, and the ensemble. In fact, the entire cast is stellar. Special mention to Stephanie Sykes, making her Broadway debut as Lois Lane, in a performance that would make Faith Prince proud.

All in all, it’s pretty irresistible, like a Shakespeare revival that doesn’t reinvent the bard, but brings out the best in him. And now what classic role can we come up with for Kelli O’Hara?

Cynthia Cochrane