Kiss Me, Kate is a farcical account of flaring egos during an out-of-town tryout for The Taming of the Shrew. Back in '48, the very notion that a musical could be built around a Shakespearean play was groundbreaking. These many decades later, much of Will's canon has been musicalized (not to mention cannibalized). If Kate's underlying premise no longer feels original, the Muny instead is serving up a double dip of vintage nostalgia — first, in its fidelity to the original source material, but also as a reminder of the Muny's unique heritage. Since that original New York opening 63 years ago, Kiss Me, Kate has only been revived once on Broadway, and the 1999 producers felt obliged to retool the original script by Sam and Bella Spewack. By contrast, this is the eighth staging in Forest Park — the first since the Broadway revival — yet the Muny is sticking with the 1948 version. One senses that this Kate has been somewhat streamlined, but Muny executive producer Paul Blake seems to recognize that the original show is more cohesive than the rewrite.
Not only is this current Kate a relatively accurate rendering of the original material, but it also provides a homage to those earlier Muny productions. You can feel an admirable sense of tradition emanating from the stage. Whether intentionally or not, Tom Hewitt, who heads the accomplished cast as egomaniacal director-star Fred Graham, is channeling the confident vanity of Earl Wrightson, who played the same role in Forest Park 40 years ago. Last summer Hewitt was an austerely imposing Captain Von Trapp in the Muny's The Sound of Music. Here he is boisterous, agile and childlike. The only characteristic the two performances share is that they are both authoritative.
One element that does not need updating is Cole Porter's melodic score. There's a comfort factor at work when you hear such lush music delivered so rapturously by orchestra and performer. When Lisa Vroman, who portrays the tempestuous Lilli Vanessi, Fred Graham's former wife and current nemesis, sings the elegant "So in Love Am I" (which is also that song's last line), she caresses that final "I" so delicately, it's as if she's ironing velvet. You just don't hear notes like that in the newer shows (he said, ruefully).
Among the featured players, Curtis Holbrook dances up a storm in the crowd-pleasing "Too Darn Hot." (He'll be back later this month to cavort his way through the Donald O'Connor role in Singin' in the Rain.) Andrea Chamberlain is the evening's femme fatale. She savvily performs "Always True to You (In My Fashion)" with lips and hips alike. This can be a long song if the actress/singer is not in command; Chamberlain is — and she's a charmer. Conrad John Schuck and Lee Roy Reams have a delightful time as two lovable gangsters who arrive backstage in Baltimore to collect on an IOU they mistakenly think Fred Graham has signed. They fall in love with theater, and we fall in love with them. Their celebrated patter song "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" is one of the evening's many highlights, but it's only one of many, primarily because director John Going and his intrepid ensemble of performers and designers have treated this summer's only bona fide classic musical with such lively respect. Even with an abbreviated rehearsal schedule, they got it right.
As a reviewer I'm eager to share my enthusiasm for the production onstage. As a reporter I'm obliged to note that on opening night the theater felt like a ghost ship. The contrast to last week's opening production of Legally Blonde was stark and clear. Last week you couldn't swing a cat without striking at least a half-dozen animated teenage girls. They were everywhere, thicker than cicadas. At intermission they were nearly as noisy as cicadas; they instilled the evening with a healthy buzz. And they seemed comfortably at home. Maybe they'll return later this summer for Little Shop of Horrors or perhaps even Bye Bye Birdie. By moribund contrast, this week's crowd was sedate, polite, silver-haired and bald. This week you couldn't swing a cat without risk of striking walkers, canes and even wheelchairs. Kiss Me, Kate is on the schedule for this very crowd, as indeed it should be, for they have long been the backbone of Muny support. But here in back-to-back productions lies the conundrum that is the Muny: As this unique theater strives to be all things to all people, it somehow manages to subtly reinvent itself just enough to keep the old patrons returning while also appealing to new audiences.
Consider, for instance, the summer of 1945, just three years before Kiss Me, Kate burst upon the scene. The Municipal Opera (as the place was called in '45) opened in late May and continued until Labor Day weekend. The theater staged a dozen musicals, only one of which was still in the repertoire in the 1970s. (Noël Coward's Bitter Sweet was last seen in 1974.) Half of the dozen operettas that were popular in 1945 expired in the '40s. (The New Moon, with music by Sigmund Romberg, was last revived in 1967.)
I think of 1945 only because that was the summer Philip Rose was a member of the Muny singing ensemble. Rose was a young aspiring opera singer, a protégé of legendary Muny musical director Edwin McArthur. Life pulled Rose in other directions, away from music and performing, though not away from theater. In the 1950s he read a friend's new play. Although Rose had never before produced a play, he was determined to get this one to Broadway. That play was Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, and Rose's production changed Broadway forever. In 1977 Rose also produced the Civil War musical Shenandoah. He took special pleasure in knowing that it was twice staged at his old alma mater in Forest Park. In a very real way, Rose, who died last month, is every bit as much a part of the Muny legacy as is Cary Grant or Virginia Mayo.
With eight different productions in six different decades, Kiss Me, Kate is also about to become a part of the Muny legacy. Even as the youth-geared Legally Blonde was staged in Forest Park last week for the first time, so too is Kiss Me, Kate being staged for the last. You don't have to be Nostradamus to figure that one out; just do the math. It's been twenty years since the last Kate, with a ten-year gap prior to that. In another 20 or 30 years, this show will seem as decrepit as a Romberg operetta. But at least Kiss Me, Kate is going out in stellar style. So the Muny proceeds in its magical way, rewriting its history every single week.