I’ll just say this bluntly: Kiss Me, Kate, like the Shakespeare play The Taming of the Shrew on which it is based, is a seriously problematic show. It is possible to enjoy a well-done production of either show—I’ve seen many of each, and the new Kiss Me, Kate at Marriott Theatre is among the best—while simultaneously wishing that both of these plays would just vanish into the ether along with other “classics” like The King and I (for its racist depictions of Asians) and Carousel (because what on Earth made Oscar Hammerstein II believe that an awful man like Billy Bigelow, a wife-beater among other things, should be redeemed into a musical leading man?). All of these shows and many, many others are just offensive to modern sensibilities, even if we can appreciate the power of their music and writing. And, frankly, if the theatre gods summarily banned all future productions, the world would be just a little bit better.
But at least at this moment, these shows continue to find their way into the seasons of reputable theaters—The King and I, for some inscrutable reason, will be performed in the spring at Drury Lane—and therefore it is incumbent on reviewers to try to cast aside our distaste for their messages and honorably discuss the production we see.
The fact is that this Kiss Me, Kate has a lot going for it. There is that Bardish pedigree, to begin with, and one simply cannot turn one’s nose up at the music and clever lyrics of Cole Porter. The combination should be perfect, and it probably would be, other than that teeny tiny little matter of enshrining toxic masculinity and misogyny. This production is directed by a woman, Johanna McKenzie Miller, and she does strive to deflect its ugliness as much as she can—in this case by gender-switching a couple of roles and adding some blocking that undermines the text at least a tad—but there is little that can be done with a problem that is so utterly entrenched in the play’s DNA.
So playgoers—and critics—just have to turn off the parts of their minds that are averse to sexism of any kind and judge the production on its merits…or else not go at all. The good news here is that, should you choose to attend, you’ll be watching an excellent performance by a highly talented group of actors who, in their director’s capable hands, can sometimes make you forget the things that Shakespeare, along with Sam and Bella Spewack, who wrote the musical’s book, make happen to the titular Kate.
If somehow you have lived this long without knowing what these plays are about:
Shakespeare’s play, which forms the center of the musical, which is about a group of traveling players putting it on, is about a woman who is independent-thinking and utterly eschews both men and the idea of marriage, opinions that result in her being labeled a “shrew” who needs “taming.” Kate (here played brilliantly by Susan Moniz) is also, unfortunately, subject to her father’s will, and he has decreed that her younger, more pliant sister Bianca (Alexandra Palkovic) may not marry before Kate does…a problem because Bianca is ready for marriage now. Enter Petruchio (Larry Adams), who, attracted by the very handsome dowry that their father has broadcast in order to find someone who will marry Kate, is determined to “tame” her rebellious ways and marry her. After half a play of berating and demeaning his wife-to-be in order to break her spirit, he finally succeeds.
The musical shows most of this plot, but wraps it up in the story of former spouses Lilli Vanessi (Moniz) and Fred Graham (Adams), who—despite their divorce—still travel and perform together. Events in the world of the troupe broadly mirror what is going on in the play, with the added pleasure of a couple of gangsters (Shea Coffman and Lillian Castillo) who arrive on the scene to retrieve money that they mistakenly believe Fred owes their boss. It’s fun watching the double plotlines and multiple characterizations playing out, which is always the joy of backstage musicals. And Lilli is given much more agency in her life than her Shakespearean counterpart even if, for some inexplicable reason, she wants to marry an army officer, played by Terry Hamilton, who seems to be even more manipulative and controlling than the fictional Petruchio. I mean, jeez: the girl just can’t win!
All of these actors, as well as the rest of the company, are brilliant performers and put on a highly entertaining show that makes the most of the energetic choreography of Alex Sanchez. Their voices are uniformly beautiful too; Adams, for example, possesses one of those operatic baritones that you just don’t hear in romantic leads these days, and it is stunning, especially on Petruchio’s signature “Where Is the Life That Late I Led.” Moniz shows off her own voice as well as her comic chops in Kate’s “I Hate Men” and other songs. The other leads have as much fun: Palkovic—playing cute, blonde and bubbly Lois as well as Bianca, who of course possesses the same attributes—leaves her mark on two of the show’s best numbers, “I’m Always True to You in My Fashion” and “Tom, Dick, or Harry”; the gangsters have as ripping time with the iconic “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”; and Jonathan Butler-Duplessis’ enthusiastic performance utterly belies the title of “Too Darn Hot.” The whole thing is a genuine embarrassment of riches.
Under Miller’s direction, Moniz puts everything she has into both Kate’s “taming” and Lilli’s vindication (well, as much vindication as the late 40s found appropriate, anyway), showing these diametrically opposite outcomes through radically different approaches to both body and voice in order to make clear that life does not imitate art here. It might just be enough to help you to overcome the antifeminist discomfort of Shakespeare’s play—Miller is certainly hoping it will be—though that is a decision for each audience member to make. For me, I’ll say that this is about as strong a production of Kiss Me, Kate as you are ever likely to see, and if that is not enough to make it palatable for you, you should stay home.
Kiss Me, Kate is playing at the Marriott Theatre now through January 16. Tickets are available here.