Thank you, thank you, thank you Darko Tresnjak! Thanks on behalf of all us geezers who remember walking out of musical comedies whistling the songs and floating on the clouds of fantasy.
Thank you for not messing too much with Kiss Me, Kate, for keeping it in its period, allowing it to strut the attitude it needs and giving it the room that a masterpiece deserves.
That was me sitting there in the dark of the Old Globe revival’s opening, grinning like an idiot, conducting the syncopation on “Another Opening, Another Show”; playing on my wife’s knee the bongo line to “Were Mine That Special Face”; punching out the three-quarter time in “Wunderbar”…
Remember when musicals casually offered up hit after hit after hit, which rolled up the aisles like the tide of bliss? Well, many of those memories have eroded away the clunkers and redacted the dull stretches, leaving a recollection fonder than deserved.
But not Kiss Me, Kate, which turns out to be even better than I remembered.
Cole Porter wasn’t an automatic genius. After DuBarry Was a Lady in 1939, he’d had several flops. The producer Saint Subber, who remembered legendary fights between the legendary connubial acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, suggested to Porter that a musical might be made from an imagined production of The Taming of the Shrew with dueling stars. Sam and Bella Spewack, mainly known as screenwriters and play-authors, were recruited. The idea was just iffy enough to make the financing hard, but all that had changed by the intermission of the Dec. 20, 1948, opening night.
With Alfred Drake and the lesser-known Patricia Morrison in the leads, the show leapt straight up into theatre heaven, where it’s been ever since.
The Spewack book was trim and durable, a steady haul of comic opportunities unburdened with trivia and astonishingly efficient in condensing Shakespeare. Tresnjak or somebody has rewritten chunks of it, with pallid results.
The actress’ new fiancé, a stuffy millionaire in the original, is now a one-eyed Army general with the ear of the president and the appetites of a banana republic boss. But one overstuffed gag magnet is as useful as another. And the rest of the book suffers only from the occasional bruise, such as the tough director following a tirade at the cast with, “(pause) I love you.”)
It’s the music that’s unforgettable, from sly innuendo to forthright romance, perky erotics to cavorting celebrations. Even with the clunky rewrites, Kate is sophisticated without being snooty, knowing without being smutty and literate while dodging dull.
All this Tresnjak has recognized, embraced and presented as a wondrous summer gift to Globe audiences.
What the production has carefully preserved is the flavor of the original, a never-never backstage world where an airhead actor can sign his boss’s name to a gambling debt of $10,000, thus introducing two discreetly terrifying enforcers backstage, while nobody can scare up two bucks for the actor’s cab fare.
The production crew works together with marvelous unanimity. Alexander Dodge’s scenery for the Shrew scenes uses color panels and Club Med fluff to evoke the Italiano fantasies of the 1940s, then hits us with backstage reality complete with overhead steam pipes in the dressing rooms. Philip S. Rosenberg knows when to use the mirror ball and when the ice-cream gels for the lighting and Fabio Toblini strikes yeasty compromises between Shakespeare drag and 40s urban with the costumes.
And choreographer Peggy Hickey is really into the concept, supercharging the gymnastic fun of such numbers as “Tom, Dick or Harry” and the sleek vaudevilliana of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” to the very brink of actual show-stopping.
It’s interesting to note that the original choreographer, Hanya Holm, had 16 dancers to work with, plus another 14 singers to fill the scenes behind the 12 principals. At the Globe, there are exactly 19 performers on stage. So everybody works their butts off.
Likewise the 14-piece orchestra, steered by Kris Kukul though some very acceptable (but demanding) reductions of Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations. Thus does talent and planning salute the luxurious specialization of yore.
“Writer, director, actor and superman” is how the boss is described in a stage direction and Mike McGowan supplies all that at the Globe with a dark, sensual dash that helps everybody else find a center. Anastasia Barzee is every bit his match as the Kate, supple of body and voice, a dame descended amongst the common folk. Their memory of potboilers past – “Wunderbar” – stays juicy across a century and a half of music theatr Megan Sikora is solid brass in finest period style as the dance lead who’s been around. The voice, descended from the 1920s poop-pee-doop, was useful back in the day to denote a tootsie whose heart is probably golden and Sikora as captured it intact. And she can dance like a dervish, sing like a siren and sizzle like a flatiron, too.
Joel Blum and Brendan Averett are possibly more dignified that necessary as the two gunsels but maybe not. Tough guys in sissy costumes are always funny and Tresnjak has allowed them some addition bun business that contrasts well with stiffness. (Or is that last phrase too influenced by the excess of crotch jokes in this show?}
The rest of the gallant cast just blows away any problems and delivers this posh merchandise with pride and satisfaction.
And as for the cut and paste “improvements” to the book, I’m inclined to shrug. I wouldn’t want to require a slavish reproduction from an artist like Tresnjak. After this Kate, I probably will take my chances with his tinkering. And it is fun to again float out of the theatre humming the evening’s songs.
Continues on the Old Globe Stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 9, 2015.