A delightful revival of the musical “Kiss Me, Kate” is providing a large helping of enjoyment, with star performances by Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase and zippy staging by director Scott Ellis augmented by some sizzling dance numbers choreographed by Warren Carlyle. The music and lyrics by Cole Porter get the treatment they deserve, and the book by Sam and Bella Spewack cleverly double dips between Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” on which the musical is based, and the raging combat of the stars performing “Shrew” in a Baltimore theater.
The flipping back and forth between backstage shenanigans and on-stage Shakespeare works smoothly. O’Hara, who sings Porter songs gloriously with her elegant voice and appealing interpretations, a treat in itself, plays the strong-willed actress Lilli Vanissi, who is starring as Kate opposite her egotistical ex-husband, actor/director/producer Fred Graham, played dynamically by Will Chase, who stars as Petruchio. Graham is still in love with Vanessi, but she is set to marry a high-placed Washington military officer. The interspersing of personal relations between the stars off-stage and on is extremely funny.
Vanessi has put into her bodice a note that came with a bouquet of flowers mistakenly delivered to her dressing room but which Graham intended for someone else. When Vanessi reads it on stage while performing as Kate, she is furious. That provides extra anger to the punching and kicking between Kate and Petruchio, resulting in rears so sore that Graham has to address the Baltimore “Shrew” audience to explain why they could no longer ride donkeys in a scene that had to be cut.
On the night I saw the show, Stephanie Styles, who normally plays actress Lois Lane, cast as Bianca, was ill, and replaced by understudy Christine Cornish Smith. I am pleased to report that Smith was sensational. She turned on the sex appeal in flirtatious scenes, her acting and singing were superb, and so was her show-stopping dancing. Smith oozes star quality.
The dancing in the show by the ensemble and by Corbin Bleu, Will Burton and Rick Faugno sizzles. The “Too Darn Hot” number with Bleu, James T. Lane, Adrienne Walker leading the ensemble is a show-stopper. John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams as gangland enforcers sent to collect a debt from Graham, and subsequently entering “Shrew” as extras to keep an eye on their target, do a great job singing the witty “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” exiting the stage and repeatedly returning for verse after verse.
There are so many musical highlights in the Porter score. You can thrill to O’Hara’s rendition of “So in Love.” There is charm in O’Hara and Chase teaming sentimentally on “Wunderbar.” O’Hara’s bristling delivery of “I Hate Men” is amusingly vindictive. Chase, who has a powerful voice, makes the most of “Where is the Life That Late I Led.” Understudy Smith demonstrated impressively how she can bring freshness to “Always True to You in My Fashion.”
David Rockwell’s set design neatly alternates the backstage and stage door Baltimore theater locations with attractive scenery for the play staging. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes are colorful additions to the show’s overall look, and the orchestra, under the musical direction of Paul Gemignani, maximizes the memorable Porter score. There has been some tinkering to render the domination of a woman idea a bit more politically correct, but not enough to spoil the original. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed March 21, 2019.