Kiss Me, Kate is a show I hold near a dear to my heart. As I junior in High School I played Bill Calhoun/Lucentio (and also got to sing “Too Darn Hot”) in a production that, by pure coincidence, happened around the time of the Broadway revival. A friend of mine went to see the show in New York and got Michael Berresse to sign a playbill “To Donald, from one Bill to another” (this was inexplicably THROWN AWAY by my ex-step dad, but I just have to move on with my life). I then got to see the national tour when it came to Cleveland.
But despite my fondness for the material, I haven’t really revisited it. Many of the songs have become standards, so I’ve heard plenty I’ve heard its greatest hits in various contexts and mash-ups throughout the years. But a dazzling concert presentation, presented as part of the BBC’s annual “Proms” concert series and streaming live on their website until the end of August, has reinvigorated by interest.
The concert, which will be TELEVISED across the pond in December, presents the complete 1948 book and score with a full orchestra and a young, mostly American cast: Fred Graham/Petruchio is played by Ben Davis (most recently the Preacher and other roles in Broadway’s Violet); former Tulsa (and future sailor) Tony Yazbeck plays Bill Calhoun/Lucentio; and my dear friend and fellow Hello Again alum Alexandra Silber plays Lilli Vanessi/Kate. (Oddly enough, Hello Again castmate Elizabeth Stanley also played Kate this summer, in a production at Barrington Stage Company). The orchestra is gorgeous and the leads ideal with the performances and the scenes are as charming as the score. As Lois Lane/Bianca, Louise Dearman was a real discovery for me. She seems to have that sort of British popularity that requires her to sing only blockbuster tunes from Wicked (she is the first to play both Glinda and Elphaba), Les Miz, Mamma Mia, etc., so I hope her clear aptitude for more traditional material leads to further, more varied opportunities for her.
The book by Sam & Bella Spewack is remarkably sturdy. It tells the backstage hijinks of a hypothetical musical production of The Taming of the Shrew, and all of the action takes place on the evening of the show’s Opening Night in Baltimore. In most cases where there is a show-within-a-show the backstage hijinks are the primary point of interest with only relevant bits of the inner show revealed. But in Kiss Me, Kate, both sides of the curtain are given equal weight. One could piece together the Shrew scenes and see a fairly coherent (though obviously abridged) version of the Bard’s play, but the Shakespeare numbers are informed by the backstage conflicts Though “I Hate Men”, is sung as Kate and inspired by the Bard, it is given added meaning when we know of her conflicted feelings for Fred. Fred doesn’t really get a character song of his own, but Petruchio’s “Where is the Life that Late I Led?” adequately represents Fred’s playboy attitudes. The resolution of the backstage hijinks is also tied to Shrew. When Lilli shows up for the finale of the musical (after previously taking a cab away from the theater) we take classic the Shakespeare Comedy ending (you get a wedding! and you get a wedding!) to bring as much happiness to Lili/Fred as it does to Kate/Petruchio. Gambling debts, gangsters, senators, and stage door Johnnies further complicate the plot, making Kate one of the breeziest, wittiest, and most entertaining musicals ever written.
In addition to getting the MGM movie treatment (in 3-D!), Kiss Me, Kate has had three separate adaptations for television, two Dutch-language televised performances, and a video recording of the London production of the revival (with Smith and York reprising their roles from the National Tour). In the coming weeks, I will be watching the MGM movie, a 1958 telecast (featuring the original Broadway leads), and the DVD of the London production.
NOTE: This post has been updated to correct some mis-rememberings of the sequencing in the plot.