‘Kiss Me Kate’ Packs Pizzazz

Joan Marcus
Roundabout Theatre Company presents “Kiss Me, Kate.” Independent/Joan Marcus
Roundabout Theatre Company presents “Kiss Me, Kate.” Independent/Joan Marcus

A most memorable of Broadway Valentines, “Kiss Me Kate” is getting a rousing revival at Studio 54, with Kelli O’Hara (Lilli Vanessi) and Will Chase (Fred Graham) leading a gifted ensemble. One of the surprising highlights of this production is Paul Gemingnani’s orchestration of Cole Porter’s masterpiece. Capturing the show’s zest and verve, it’s the orchestra that keeps us bouncing in our seats.

Warren Carlyle’s choreography, too, breathes those rhythms with such pizzazz that we don’t want the endless, breathtaking, heart-pounding tap numbers to ever stop. To that end Corbin Bleu, as lover boy Bill Calhoun, delivers the stamina and power that reveal an old-fashioned sense of masculinity. The kind that goes deep and feels believable. It’s a great twist to the character, as his loyalty to his girlfriend Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles) appears to be an on-again, off-again affair.

Playing Bill’s love interest, Styles portrays a red headed moll with a squeaky voice and all the quirks it takes to entertain us. Stephanie is an actress, after all. As the loan shark to whom Bill owes money, John Pankow is an iconic gangster — a no nonsense man of nonsense, strutting in his baggy pants, and pinstriped suit. And Adrienne Walker, as Hattie, Lilli’s trusted assistant, is powerful in song.

In fact, O’Hara has a great voice for Lilli, singing in an operatic style. She’s so real at it, we hardly notice the note of pretense. It’s a great leap for the singer, who Broadway audiences know best for her lighter style, as in her leading roles in “South Pacific,” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” As the lothario, Chase is a fetching womanizer — as if such an anomaly could exist. He’s boyish, and even a bit goofy.

Loosely based on “The Taming of The Shrew,” Sam and Bella Spewack’s book gives deference to William Shakespeare’s play by adapting the primary plot points, but with an additional pinch of satire for levity. The revival of this well-known rom-com bursts into music and dance, glancing less effortfully at story telling. Scott Elliot’s direction borders on a camp interpretation of the musical, which certainly is playful at heart.

Still, the musical numbers, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Too Damn Hot,” and “Wunderbar,” among the greatest in the American Songbook, are the soul of this extraordinary show. It is totally entertaining.

Be More Chill

If “‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in a post-apocalyptic future, fleeing from zombies” doesn’t sound like your idea of a great show, “Be More Chill” may feel challenging at first.

Powered by its social media fan base, the show, which premiered at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ, a few years ago, has opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. Still, it’s a musical packed with spoiler alerts, the most salient of which is about the hazards of taking drugs. If this sounds like proselytizing that is because it’s meant to be, and it’s done it in a fun and convincing way.

Will Roland plays Jeremy Heere, the nerdy high-school student who has a depressed dad (Jason Sweettooth Williams) and a dead-beat mom. She ran off with the high school prom king to live on Long Island, leaving dad to pine forever, as he sits around the house, incapable of putting on his pants. Not exactly the kind of model Jeremy needs.

Motivated by his crush on Christine, played by the highly comic and adorable Stephanie Hsu, Jeremy makes a Faustian pact with The Squip (Jason Tam). The actor playing the drug creates a disturbing anthropomorphic presence. He’s too cool for school, and he really does look like Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.”

Of course, Squip’s handsome looks are deceiving, and the mind-altering, mind-controlling substance stirs the pot of human behaviors. It’s mean! And the things that happen — cacophonous, off the wall, and violent.

Joe Iconis’s music speaks to teenagers with its amped-up volume and energetic charm. It’s harder on our ears, but then so is this story, in which a Walpurgisnacht of drug taking leads to the fires that burn down another student’s home. That occasion is Jake’s (Britton Smith’s) Halloween party.

Still, the standout in this production is Jeremy’s best friend, Michael. In this role, George Salazar looks like an adult playing a kid, and he behaves like that as well. But he is the most heartfelt and genuine character in the show. He’s also gifted the most gorgeous solo, “Michael in the Bathroom,” an ode to teenage angst, that he sings with all his soul.

There are some well thought out details here, that beg for our attention. For one, the drugs are served in an oversized baby bottle, and for another, Alex Basco Koch’s projections fuel a horror-inducing look at the psychedelic experience.

Chase Brock’s choreography highlights the characters’ identities. Christine flies like Peter Pan’s sister, Michael squares himself nervously to the audience, and the Squip delivers the physical qualities of a really evil character. Maybe the very idea of talking to girls stirs this kind of outer-body experience.

Most outstanding, Beowulf Boritt’s set design with the outlines of three concentric cell phone screens framing the proscenium, tells us where this all takes place. Where else?

That director Stephen Brackett keeps this unruly story moving to its happy ending, without losing the audience, is extraordinary.

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