Kelli O’Hara’s effervescent voice is like a natural anti-depressant, its pure tone and sweet sound instantly lifting the mood of anyone lucky enough to hear it. This is nothing new, of course. The soprano has long serenaded audiences into standing ovations, to the tune of one Tony award (for her stunning work in The King and I) and five additional nominations. But rarely has O’Hara’s vibrato sounded so strong, so powerful, as it does when she sings these three little words: “I Hate Men.”
The phrase comes in the classic Cole Porter song of the same name, halfway through Act 1 of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s first-rate revival of Kiss Me, Kate — which opened Thursday at the Studio 54 theater.
It’s typically a cheeky moment in the show played for laughs, staged with slams of empty beer mugs on the table and kicked-over stools so the audience can see that O’Hara’s character — the love-torn, frustrated actress Lilli Vanessi — is just as as brainless and boorish as the male species she’s criticizing. Yet here, director Scott Ellis holds O’Hara steady and allows the actions of the men around her to do the talking. In turn, O’Hara’s calmness and resolve lets the tune, written the late 1940s, read as a rousing anthem for women in 2019 ready to say, “Time’s Up.”
That’s just one of the smart shifts Ellis and company have made with this fresh Kiss Me, Kate.
Gone is the shiny schmaltz of the Golden Age musical’s previous productions, Ellis instead grounding the piece, when necessarily, in sincerity and reality. “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”, led by Adrienne Walker’s soulful voice, now feels as a passionate rallying cry for artists everywhere embracing their craft. Even the costume designer Jeff Mahshie and set designer David Rockwell colorful creations seem to be slightly restrained.
At its core, though, the story remains the same. Lilli returns to the stage from Hollywood to re-team with her former costar and ex-husband, Fred Graham (Will Chase, of Nashville and Smash), in a musical version of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew he’s also produced and written. Foes at first, things quickly turn sweet between Lilli and Fred when they each realize that spark that once made them lovers is still there. That is, until a mistaken bouquet delivery sets them off again and causes their combat to spill over to their on-stage scenes.
Those spats usually bring Kiss Me, Kate some of its biggest laughs — and thankfully, that remains the same here. It helps that Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody, Bring It On The Musical) has provided some tweaks to Sam and Bella Spewack’s book, which responsibly eliminate some of the nastier verbal insults to level the playing field a bit. The delightful Chase has embraced some of Fred’s goofiness, too, and he and O’Hara play off one another perfectly.
None of this means the piece has lost its spark. Porter’s wit still shines through in his score. And the entire show seems to step into another stratosphere when Act 2 opens, with Warren Carlyle’s electrifying choreography allowing the ensemble to show off during “Too Darn Hot.” Carlyle’s moves help other numbers dazzle as well, including the hilarious “Always True to You in My Fashion” (led by Stephanie Styles, as the ditzy Lois) and “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” which sees Corbin Bleu, Will Burton, and Rick Faugno competing in high-flying ways to win Lois’ heart.
Bleu is a standout among them all. The High School Musical actor showed off his stage skills to previous acclaim in the Roundabout’s Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical back in 2016, and has only gotten stronger since. He’s a classic showman born for this exact sort of piece, with charm and undeniable talents to boot (on display, especially, when the actor LITERALLY TAP-DANCES ON THE CEILING).
All of this excitement leads to the show’s final moments, which sadly are where Kiss Me, Kate‘s limitations cause this productions one misstep. Rushing towards an inevitable happy ending conclusion, Ellis pulls Lilli back and reframes her journey as one about the sentimentality of the stage and the conviction of choice, rather than the readiness of romance. Lilli needed one more scene to get us there in retrospect. Still, it’s hard to harp on that when O’Hara sells it so well. What can’t she do? A-