This Kiss Me, Kate Comeback Is the Swellest Gig in Town

Michael Blakemore’s champagne production of Cole Porter’s 1948 masterpiece Kiss Me, Kate at the Martin Beck is triumphant in every way. It is happily telling us that to have fun at the theater is no crime. It is saying in all its celebratory silliness and romance and intoxicating love of showbiz that we really oughta Cole Porter. And so we do, gladly.

The sparkling production is, quite simply, the best new musical on Broadway-by a mile. When some of us regret the loss of that great American invention, musical comedy, this is what we’re missing so much. I hesitate to use the dread word “revival.” Mr. Blakemore with his stellar cast and creative team have wonderfully reinvented the Porter classic in its first major New York production since it opened in the 40′s.

Kiss Me, Kate was Porter’s comeback. His breezy cosmopolitan stylishness had been eclipsed by the corn-fed music dramas of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. But apart from its great score, the original concept of the show by its book writers and witty Shakespearean scholars, Sam and Bella Spewack, was inspired. The Lunts, of legend, had starred in The Taming of the Shrew (by William Shakespeare), but the devoted royal couple of theater quarreled as much on stage as their battling characters, Katherine and Petruchio. So Kiss Me, Kate cleverly tells the farcical story of a tryout production of The Taming of the Shrew opening in Baltimore, with its two egotistical stars-now divorced-at loggerheads.

It wasn’t, incidentally, the first Broadway musical to be based on a play by Shakespeare. (The 1938 The Boys From Syracuse by Rodgers and Hart was inspired by The Comedy of Errors .) It was the first to use whole chunks of Shakespeare. The Bard and Cole Porter-wordsmiths, both.

Kiss Me Kate is a backstage story, in its madcap fashion.

Another op’nin’, another show

In Philly, Boston or Baltimo’,

A chance for stage folks to say hello

Another op’nin’ of another show.

But within that bouncy showbiz anthem to the ulcerous joy of opening nights, director Blakemore throws down an unexpected ace. The entire overture to the musical is neatly folded into that vintage opening number-songs within a song in the show within a show. And we’re off and humming.

There isn’t a single weakness in the immensely gifted ensemble, led by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie. The two renegades from the Sturm und Drang of Ragtime perform with the infectious joy of the newly liberated. They’re a perfect bravado match in competing histrionics, with Ms. Mazzie all but stopping the show with Porter’s tremendous (and tremendously ironic) “I Hate Men.” (“I can’t abide ‘em even now and then.”) Yet the note struck isn’t just of the clownish pleasures of a show that needs to come to the very edge of going over the top. That’s often a perilous place to hover, which turns out entirely successful here. The heartbeat of the new production isn’t in its fizz and fun, but within its musical refinement.

The two stars waltz irreverently through Porter’s satire on European operetta (and Viennese waltzes), “Wunderbar.” Its subtext in the battle of the sexes is more “Wunderless.” But when it comes to a fresh reading of a tried-and-true Porter lyric, everyone in the cast excels. Ms. Mazzie’s beautiful version of the standard “So in Love” is as true as a bell, its touching resonance built on a terrible yearning.

Porter’s ingenious wit and suggestiveness are legendary, of course. But his tender ballads can be brooding in their surprising near-solemnity. When Mr. Mitchell superbly reprises “So in Love” during Act II, the dark undertow to Cole Porterly romance now suggests defeat, and the ballad flirts with self-destruction. “So taunt me and hurt me,/ Deceive me, desert me,/ I’m yours till I die.”

That said, the handsome, good-humored Mr. Mitchell hams it up gloriously. Playing a big ham, it’s the least he can do. He’s a performer of innately appealing charm-one of the very few who can dare to stand center-stage with his arms outstretched to be embraced by the audience happily in return. It’s virtually a passé gift. In which case: Welcome back!

So, too, is the kind of acclaim that goes with the line, “a star is born,” but I have no hesitation in acclaiming the comparative newcomer, Amy Spanger, who’s exactly right in her super performances as flighty Lois Lane in the touring company and younger sis Bianca in The Shrew . Her readings of her big songs are on the money every time-from the straight-faced double entendres of “Tom, Dick or Harry” (Dick is preferred), to the show-stopping “Always True to You in My Fashion”-

If a custom-tailored vet

Asks me for something wet,

When the vet begins to pet, I cry “Hooray!”

But I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion …

Can’t get that in The Lion King .

Kiss Me, Kate is a sophisticated period piece whose period is just swell. What else is the duet for stage-struck gangsters, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” but a party piece straight out of traditional music hall? (“When your baby is pleading for pleasure/ Let her sample your Measure for Measure .”) The Run-yonesque routine is delivered deadpan, by two hoods in pinstripe suits who somehow end up appearing in The Taming of the Shrew . Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren have us convulsed with laughter. They also appear as the front and back of a donkey.

And by now you will have possibly got the message. We like Kiss Me, Kate . But as I run out of space and superlatives, mention must be made of the thrilling dance contribution of choreographer Kathleen Marshall and the entire ensemble. Ms. Marshall’s big, inventive numbers are sexy, sly and always fun. She brings to the show the novelty and spirit of her admired work for the Encores series at City Center, throwing down a royal flush with the second-act opener, “Too Darn Hot”- another show-stopper, led this time by Stanley Wayne Matthis.

It’s a pretty production, too-an illusion within an illusion. The scenic design by Robin Wagner is among his very finest work: the awesome realism of the triple-level backstage, the beautiful glow of the Lorenzetti backdrops for Padua, the fantasy cardboard inner sets for The Shrew . The 1940′s and Renaissance costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are perfect; so, too, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting.

Quibbles? Some of us might be debating a few details over our hot chocolate. The uncredited work by John Guare surely works well, but is his knowing Noél Coward reference wise? Should “From This Moment On”-which wasn’t in the original production, but in the botched film version-be delivered as a sendup or the great standard it became? I’ll let you know next time I see the show. When all is said and done, this Kiss Me, Kate is the top.