Whether she’s hitting high notes or swatting her male co-star, Kelli O’Hara — funny and fierce — is reason enough to see “Kiss Me, Kate.”
This 70-year-old hodgepodge of showbiz shenanigans and Shakespeare is hardly the tightest tale ever told. But it’s got a jewel box full of hummable Cole Porter gems, including the lush “So in Love,” the frisky “Why Can’t You Behave” and the rousing “Another Op’nin,’ Another Show.”
In this Roundabout Theatre revival, O’Hara and Will Chase play film star Lilli Vanessi and producer-director-actor Fred Graham, sparring ex-spouses whose personal battle bleeds into their roles as Katharine and Petruchio in a touring musical of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Supporting players Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun (Stephanie Styles and Corbin Bleu) add their own romantic antics. All told, Bella and Sam Spewack’s un-PC story makes “Kiss Me, Kate” an Actors’ Equity and human resources nightmare.
But all’s well that ends well, thanks to Scott Ellis’ witty staging, which brims with visual gags and cheekiness.
Set designer David Rockwell keeps things moving seamlessly as the action glides back and forth between Baltimore, where the play within the play is trying out, and the Bard’s Italy. And Warren Carlyle’s choreography is dynamite: “Too Darn Hot” sizzles and, in another number, Bleu sings and taps his heart out — even upside down.
O’Hara with “Kiss Me, Kate” co-star Will ChaseJoan Marcus
The musical’s book has been tweaked, though not always for the better, to minimize misogyny. Kate’s no longer called a “wench,” nor is she spanked — instead, she gives Petruchio plenty of swift kicks in the rump. And when she sings Shakespeare’s line, “I am ashamed that women are so simple,” the “women” turn into “people.”
Gender-parity achieved, yes? No. As laudable as these efforts are, Lilli still performs against her will, thanks to a subplot about debt-collecting goons. And several songs are steeped in pervy references, including a “Tom, Dick or Harry” whose emphasis lies firmly on Dick.
A love letter to the theater? This “Kiss” is like a series of naughty sexts.
But the stars make the most of it. Chase, a Broadway vet and star of TV’s “Nashville,” makes a convincingly pompous and preening chauvinist, especially when he’s singing “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua.” And O’Hara radiates command every step and note of the way. She puts her stamp on her roles with wry comedy, physical abandon and rapturous singing.
In this battle of the sexes, O’Hara takes the “Kate.”