Theater Diaries: Kiss Me Kate and The Prom; Met's Samson

This has been a slow theater season. Great for my wallet, but disappointing when I remember that the things I did see (Choir Boy, My Fair Lady with the new cast, A Chorus Line) kind of sucked too. Well that dry spell is over. This weekend I saw two wonderful musicals. One (Kiss Me Kate) just opened. The other (The Prom) has opened October 2018 but for some reason I didn't get around to seeing it till now.

Roundabout Theatre's revival of Kiss Me Kate is actually my first live experience with this musical. I of love the original Broadway cast recording, the film adaptation. I was really looking forward to seeing the classic Cole Porter lyrics and score and the book by Sam and Bella Spewack onstage. And of course, let us not forget the Bard. The afternoon did not disappoint.

Too darn hot, photo @ Joan Marcus
The revival directed by Scott Ellis does full justice to Cole Porter, to Shakespeare, to musical comedy. There are very minimal tweaks to the book and lyrics. Maybe the biggest one is in Lilli's song "I Am Ashamed Women Are So Simple." "Women" has been substituted with "People." I like the original because it's a direct Shakespearean quote, but the substitution isn't intrusive. Other than that, this Kiss Me Kate doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. It screams "old fashioned musical" from the top of its lungs and that's part of the charm. Warren Carlyle's choreography pays homage to both the movie and the tap and jazz accents that are built into Porter's score. The sets by David Rockwell and costumes by Jeff Mahshie are replicate exactly what you'd expect a not-very-promising out-of-town Baltimore musical tryout to look like.

So in love. O'Hara and Chase, photo @ Sara Krulwich
The leads are Kelli O'Hara (Lilli) and Will Chase (Fred). If there's a modern anachronism in this revival it's that Kelli O'Hara sings like a classically trained opera/operetta singer, while Will Chase's style is more modern musical theater. He doesn't have the deep, resonant baritone of Alfred Drake, the original Fred, or Howard Keel, the movie Fred. This is especially noticeable in their duet "Wunderbar" where Kelli sounds like she stepped out of The Merry Widow and Chase can't imitate that operetta style. O'Hara's voice is of course so beautiful -- her soprano blooms and makes those Porter melodies sound heavenly. In the act one finale "Kiss Me Kate" she even does a deadpan parody of the Lucia di Lammermoor mad scene cadenza, trills, flute and all. Her coloratura skills were so impressive that the audience applauded in the middle of the cadenza. (The cadenza was written by vocal teacher and this blog's tireless fact checker Gerald Martin Moore.)

This is gorgeous:

Despite the stylistic differences in their singing both O'Hara and Chase act their roles well and have decent if not sizzling chemistry. Will Chase's Petruchio is a recognizable type -- the washed up, middle aged, playboy actor. Kelli O'Hara isn't a natural comedienne, but she finds situational humor in her role. For instance she glides onstage during "Another Opening, Another Show" like an old-time Hollywood movie star. She keeps up those affectations (down to the international accent) throughout much of the first act. But she's not in Hollywood anymore, she's in Baltimore, doing an out of town tryout. Obviously Hollywood didn't work out for her. O'Hara also really comes alive in the scene that Lilli finds out that Fred's bouquet was not meant for her, and "Kate" onstage has a knock-down-drag-out fight with "Petruchio." This role forces Kelli out of her acting comfort zone and the results are positive.

Bleu and Styles, photo @ Sara Krulwich
The supporting cast was terrific. Corbin Bleu as Bill Calhoun is a triple threat -- he can sing, he can dance, he can act. He stopped the show with his big Act Two tap number "Bianca," in which he even did a Jimmy Cagney tribute by tap dancing up and down the stairs. Stephanie Styles as Lois Lane was simply adorable -- she reminds me of Jane Krakowski in her effortless humor and sweetness. "Always True to You in My Fashion" was so winning.

James T. Lane has a soulful voice and was the terrific main singer and dancer for "Too Darn Hot." Carlyle's choreography for "Too Darn Hot" is a slow burn -- at first it seemed unimpressive, but when Bleu and Lane started tapping up a storm the place went wild. John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams were very funny as the two gangsters, although I thought "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" needed more pizazz. This number is heavily based on vaudeville traditions and needed to be a little sillier. Finally Terence Archie was hilariously officious (and sexist) as General Harrison Howell, Lilli's fiancé. Only Will Burton (Gremio) and Rick Faugno (Hortensio) were weak links -- their dancing in "Tom Dick or Harry" was mediocre and of course cannot hold a candle to Bobby Van and Bob Fosse.

Bianca, Tom, Dick, or Harry, photo @ Joan Marcus
Kiss Me Kate premiered in 1948 but in many ways the show seems less dated than, say, Cats or Phantom of the Opera because both the book and the score have genuine wit. Even the era references are funny, like General Howell picking Dewey as the presidential winner. The meta-musical of actors playing actors and art imitating life is as fresh as ever. And the Shakespearean references are exactly the right mix of irreverence and genuine respect. There's so many witty lyrics but maybe my favorite is this one: "If she fights when her clothes you are mussing/"What are clothes? Much ado about nussing." I mean, come on. That's just genius.

The Prom's washed up actors, photo @Sara Krulwich
If you want another meta-musical that's full of laughs, then head over to the Longacre Theatre for The Prom, a charming musical that blends two of Broadway's most beloved tropes: actors doing a self-parody of actors and high school musical angst. The premise: two slightly over-the-hill actors Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) and Barry Glickman (Brook Ashmanskas) need some good P.R. after yet another musical of theirs flops. They decide that they need to do some social media virtue signaling. Their friend and long-time Chicago ensemble member Angie (Angie Schworer) finds a tweet about a lesbian teen in Indiana who just wants to take her girlfriend to the prom and tada! Perfect virtue-signaling cause.

These three actors drag their long-suffering press agent Sheldon (Josh Lamon) and hitch a ride with waiter/Julliard Graduate/former sitcom star Trent Oliver's (Christopher Sieber) non-Equity Godspell tour to small-town Indiana, where they find that reserved, bespectacled Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) is battling a hostile P.T.A. spearheaded by a bigoted Mrs. Greene (Courtney Collins) ... who just happens to be the mother of Emma's secret girlfriend Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla). Emma's only ally is the school principal Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts). These four "liberal Democrats from Broadway" are determined to swoop in, "help that little lesbian", and take that good publicity to reboot their careers on the Great White Way.

This sounds corny right? It absolutely is. But it's also an extremely lovable musical, with an infectious score by Matthew Sklar, witty lyrics by Chad Beguelin and a genuinely funny book by Bob Martin. Casey Nicolaw's direction ensures that the show moves quickly and the jokes come a mile a minute. His choreography is rousing and up-tempo. This is and old-fashioned feel-good musical comedy like Hairspray or Kinky Boots where LGBT themes are tackled in a gentle, PG-rated way.  There are a ton of theater in-jokes that had me in stitches. Pay attention to a brief one-liner about a Drama Desk Award. And also, this celebrity social media virtue signaling that The Prom parodies is very real. No need to name names ...

The secret lovers, photo @ Sara Krulwich
The show is has wonderful acting across the board. The storyline of Emma and the hostility she faces about taking a girl to the prom is one of those things that could have become really trite really fast. But Caitlin Kinnunen's Emma and Isabelle McCalla's Alyssa as the clandestine lovers are sweetly sincere. Emma's ballad "Unruly Heart" I suspect will become a regional audition staple soon.

Of course the "liberal Democrats from Broadway" can't help but upstage the show. All of them are recognizable theater types. Dee Dee is the iron-lunged Broadway belter a la Patti Lupone. Her big number "It's Not About Me" is of course ironic -- Dee Dee is all about herself, all the time. Beth Leavel is hilariously narcissistic with a powerful belt although by the end of the show she has learned to "smile ... and tip." Barry is the Broadway "romantic leading man" that's getting old and paunchy and is "as gay as a bucket of wigs." Again, this material could have become trite without the unflagging energy of Brook Ashmanskas, who sells his role as if the rent were due tomorrow and he were down to his last penny.

Teens become tolerant ... by singing and dancing! Photo @ Sara Krulwich
Trent Oliver is one of those pontificators whose whole life is a Shakespearean monologue. Christopher Sieber gets the right mix of self-importance and good-heartedness in the role.  Angie is the "antelope-legged" chorus girl who in middle age still affects the girlish helium voice and mannerisms of a Broadway soubrette. The terrific Angie Schworer kills it in my favorite number of the entire show, "Zazz," a send-up of Chicago's "All that Jazz" with all of Bob Fosse's trademarks thrown in for fun.

The show is not perfect. Matthew Sklar's score is fun but it's nowhere near the level of, say, Kiss Me Kate -- no one would put The Prom on any list of great musical theater scores. The second act starts to drag -- every leading character has their "big number" and not all the big numbers are created equal. "Barry Goes to the Prom" is maybe the weakest second act big number. The portrayal of a bigoted small town in Indiana veers dangerously close to something "liberal Democrats from Broadway" might imagine while sipping their martinis at Sardi's. A romance between Dee Dee and Mr. Hawkins ("because straight people like Broadway too") becomes outright maudlin.

But these are small quibbles. This show has humor, heart, and unflagging energy from a great cast and crew. Go see it!

Here is the uplifting joyous finale number:

It won't work out. Just have a feeling ... Photo @ Ken Howard
In other news, I went to Samson et Dalila last night. By now everyone knows that struggling tenor Aleksandr Antonenko canceled after one act in the first performance and Gregory Kunde stepped in for the final two acts as a last last minute replacement (he'd just finished a run of Manon Lescauts in Dallas days earlier). The next day Antonenko withdrew from the run and Kunde replaced Antonenko for all remaining performances. I saw Anita Rachveshvili and Kunde last night, along with Laurent Naouri (sounding better than he did in the fall), Mark Elder still conducting. Tomasz Konieczny (Abilemich) and Gunther Grossböck (Old Hebrew) have traveled from Das Rheingold to take two small roles in Gaza. These two men are great bass-baritones. Real luxury casting.

Anita followed her balls-to-the-walls Amneris and Principessa with a Dalila that was a quiet and subtle temptress. Unlike Elina Garanca she played Dalila as someone who was genuinely in love (or lust) with Samson and showed remorse in the last act. Not sure the music supports this interpretation as Dalila mercilessly mocks Samson with her seduction songs in front of all the Philistines. Rachvelishvili of course has one of the most powerful mezzos on the scene but she scaled down that power effectively for her two big arias "Printemps qui commence" and "Mon coeur s'ouvre ta voix," which came across as whispery bedroom seductions. I wasn't as taken with Kunde as I expected to be. Respect of course to a tenor who at 65 (!!!) still has a solid voice with ringing high notes (including the final B flat that brings the temple down), but at this point his singing is more brawn than beauty.

With that being said I think both Rachvelishvili and Kunde have a more exciting dynamic performance of Samson in them than what I saw last night. The evening was hampered by Mark Elder's painfully ponderous, leaden conducting. An opera that has about two hours of music should not run nearly four hours (performance that started at 8:00 ended at 11:45). That along with the 45 minute intermissions made for a very long evening.

But if you want to hear voices that are fairly well-matched to their roles, then head over to the Met for the remaining performances of Samson.


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