Friday, March 15, 2019

KISS ME, KATE!: Kelli's O'Hara's Performance Makes This New Production Absolutely Wunderbar

And the Tony goes to ... 

Admittedly, I am not the best predictor of the Tony Awards. But still, looking back and looking forward at the Broadway musicals for the 2018-19 year, I cannot recall or foresee anyone coming close to the perfect performance that Kelli O'Hara is giving in the revival of Cole Porter's 1948 gem, Kiss Me Kate, which opened this week at Roundabout's Studio 54.

I've seen Ms. O'Hara on numerous occasions over the years. The first time was as 'Babe' Williams in the 2006 Broadway revival of The Pajama Game opposite Harry Connick, Jr. She was a revelation to me, even then, giving a truly sparkling performance. Who was this budding Broadway star, I wondered. 

Then, two years later, she blew everyone away as Nellie Forbush in the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific.  That remains among the top ten musical productions I have every seen. That's the performance that should have earned her the Tony (Patti LuPone won for Gypsy).

2015 saw her take on the role of Anna Leonowens in The King and I, also at Lincoln Center. Here it seemed to me the magic was starting to fade a bit.  While her singing was strong, and she did, indeed, win the Tony Award this time, I found her to be technically excellent but lacking in the kind of heart-felt connection with the show and with the audience as I had previously seen.

But wow, wow, wow, Fellas, look at Kelli now!  I've never heard her in better voice as, with seeming ease in the role of actress Lilli Vanessi, she tosses off those coloratura soprano notes and turns an old war horse like "So In Love" into a heart-breaking song of longing and regret. And then, she goes and does some of the best knock-about physical comedy I can ever recall seeing on stage, with a Punch and Judy battle of the sexes with her ex-husband, Fred, played by Will Chase.

Chase, a tenor, was an unusual choice for the role of Fred, who, though he and Lilli are divorced, is working with her in his acting company's production of a musicalization of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, which becomes the show within a show with its own production numbers. Fred is usually played by a robust baritone, most memorably Alfred Drake in the original production and in the follow-up movie.  

But given this production's efforts at shaking off Kiss Me, Kate's inherent sexism (you can thank Amanda Green for her excellent help in tweaking the script), it makes sense to soften Fred as you strengthen Lilli so that they become equal partners in the enterprise. Indeed, there never is a doubt that they are still deeply in love with each other and will find their way back by the end of the show. 

And, by the way, if you love terrific dancing, keep an eye on Corbin Bleu in the supporting role of Bill.  He is stupendous in his own right, and the sizzling Act II opener, “Too Darn Hot” is a scorcher! 

Bottom line: This Kiss Me, Kate! is not to be missed. 


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