Monday, June 30, 2014

Cole Porter, Late and Early

Paul Anthony Stewart and Elizabeth Stanley in Kiss Me, Kate at Barrington Stage (Photo by Kevin Sprague)

Any short list of great American musicals would have to include Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, with its witty, ingenious book by Bella and Samuel Spewack. The Spewacks turn The Taming of the Shrew into a backstage meta-musical about a musical-comedy version of Shakespeare’s comedy starring a once-married pair of gigantic egos whose behavior around each other suggests a modern variant on Petruchio and Katherine’s. You can’t do much to bury the misogyny in Shakespeare’s comedy – unless, like the great English company Propeller, you make it the critical focus of the show, i.e., deconstruct it – but Kiss Me, Kate gets away from it by making the two main characters, Fred Graham (who is also directing the musical within the musical) and his leading lady Lilli Vanessi, equally foolish and equally culpable. They hark back to the protagonists of Twentieth Century (and the musical based on it, On the Twentieth Century), played memorably in the sensationally funny 1934 Howard Hawks movie by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, and those of the lesser known but also funny 1937 comedy It’s Love I’m After (played by Leslie Howard and Bette Davis).

The original 1948 Broadway production of Kiss Me, Kate lives on in the wonderful cast recording, and the truncated version performed on television ten years later with Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison recreating their starring roles is now available on DVD. Kathleen Marshall staged a spirited revival on Broadway in 1999 (and there’s a PBS transcription of it, albeit with the London cast). But really, the musical is generally foolproof – even a tamed-down M-G-M movie version, with the colorless coloratura Kathryn Grayson trilling her way through Lilli’s songs and some poor contract player plunked down in the invented role of Cole Porter, isn’t bad. I say generally foolproof because the production that opened the Barrington Stage season in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is so monstrous that it steamrolls over the show and succeeds in breaking its back. Barrington Stage’s On the Town was hands down the best show I saw in the Berkshires last summer (and it’s due to be resurrected on Broadway in the fall); the direction by John Rando, working with the fine choreographer Joshua Bergasse, was an object lesson in how to bring out the sex comedy and the sexual longing in a 1940s musical without vulgarizing it or betraying the period in which it was written. Kiss Me, Kate’s director, Joe Calarco, and its choreographer, Lorrin Latarro, have no such intentions. When Lilli (Elizabeth Stanley), as Katherine, sings “I Hate Men” and gets to the verse warning her fellow women about the perils of traveling salesman, as she sings, “But don’t forget / ‘T is he who’ll have the fun and thee the baby,” she throws herself on her back and mimes the agonies of childbirth. When Fred (Paul Anthony Stewart), as Petruchio, performs the great “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?,” with its spiraling interior rhymes, he illustrates the subtext of the line “What scandalous doin’s / In the ruins of Pompeii” by humping the stage floor. The whole damn production is just like that.

(Photo by Kevin Sprague)
I once saw an idiotic On the Town at Trinity Rep in Providence in which the director, Anne Bogart, made a big noise over her discovery that the musical was a piece of wartime escapism. But since anyone in the audience of any version of On the Town can see that it is – and, moreover, since the authors, Comden and Green, address the realities of wartime subtly and poignantly in the second-act ballad “Some Other Time” – the effect of Bogart’s concept was to turn what had been tenderly understated in the musical into a flashing neon sign. I thought of Bogart’s approach in the second-act opening of Kiss Me, Kate, “Too Darn Hot,” which – mostly because of the performance of Matthew Bauman, who sings the solo and leads the dancers – is one of the two high points of the show for about half its running time. (The other, not surprisingly, is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” sung here by Carlos Lopez and Michael Dean Morgan as the gangster duo.) But Latarro doesn’t know when to stop the number. It goes on and on and the choreography becomes as overtly (and monotonously) eroticized as the club numbers in the Sam Mendes-Rob Marshall revival of Cabaret. Does Latarro really think that we need to be told that “Too Darn Hot” is about sex – that we need to have Porter’s sly double entendres explained to us?

Perhaps Bogart was in my mind because unless I’m much mistaken, this Kiss Me, Kate, like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window I reviewed a couple of months ago, carries the mark of Bogart’s much vaunted (by actors and directors, if by no one else) directorial approach, Viewpoints. Every performance is over the top and hopelessly phony; there are no characters, just show-biz embroidery. Even Bauman, so good in “Too Darn Hot,” is dreadful when he has to play a book scene: when Bauman’s character, Paul the stage manager, realizes he’s delivered Fred’s flowers to Lilli rather than to the ingĂ©nue, Lois Lane (Mara Davi), his current squeeze, Bauman starts to scream and stuff Kleenex in his mouth. I don’t blame the actor for this dopey bit of business; when everyone on stage is overacting embarrassingly in the same style, it’s the director who’s at fault, not his hard-working cast, who are clearly trying to give him what he wants. I’ve seen some of the actors in other venues and can attest to their talent. And there’s nothing wrong with either the singing or the dancing of the ensemble – only the acting makes you want to bang your head against the set.

It’s an unattractive set, by the way (James Kronzer designed it), and I didn’t care for Amy Clark’s costumes either, or for Calarco’s staging. In the play-within-the-play scenes he has all the actors on stage, the men sitting on one angled upstage bench, the women on another. He’s like an undergraduate directing student who’s determined to be modernist but doesn’t understand the demands of the genre in which he’s working. The chorus never stops acting, trading semi-audible ad-libs and commenting on everything they’re seeing as well as everything they’re doing. But in a musical comedy we don’t want to be distracted by individual members of the chorus, unless they’re singing a solo line in a group number or executing a pas de deux in a dance number. This Kiss Me, Kate wears you out long before intermission. It’s a punishingly long two hours and forty-five minutes.

One of Cole Porter’s earliest excursions was La Revue des Ambassadeurs, produced in Paris in 1928 at what was reportedly the most chic and exclusive nightclub in the city, the Ambassadeurs. It was choreographed by Bobby Connolly (just over a decade away from staging the numbers for The Wizard of Oz) and featured Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, tenor Morton Downey, George Gershwin’s songstress singer Frances (performing interpolated songs by her brother), and later Clifton Webb and musical-comedy flapper Dorothy Dickson. Of all of Porter’s twenties shows – he didn’t become a famous Broadway commodity until the thirties – La Revue des Ambassadeurs is the least known. Some of the music was lost, as well as the Waring orchestrations; even a dedicated Porter collector like myself has never been able to hear the score except for “Pilot Me” (which Bobby Short recorded) and “Looking at You” (which Porter recycled for the Broadway musical Wake Up and Dream the following year and many people have covered through the years). Until last week, that is, when the Town Hall in midtown Manhattan, under the direction of Ken Bloom, brought it back as The Ambassador Revue for a single sold-out performance, the lost – music and orchestrations – having at last, and most delightfully, been found.

The score turns out to be quite varied; it includes a rag (“Keep Moving”), a pair of blues (“The Lost Liberty Blues” and “Blues Hours”), an upbeat seduction number (“Pilot Me”), a jazz parody of an art song (“In a Moorish Garden”), a romantic ballad (“You and Me”), a march (“Military Maids”), a honky-tonk (“Fish”), dance numbers and novelty numbers and a finale (“Fountain of Youth”) of the “Clap Yo’ Hands”/”Sweepin’ the Clouds Away” variety. Most of them are sprightly, some of them – like “Fountain of Youth” and “Baby, Let’s Dance” – really splendid, and they furnish plentiful examples of Porter’s playful wit. (From “Fish”: “Don’t be so capricious / Sample my line / All the other fishes / Say it’s delicious.”) The concert was barely staged, but Randy Skinner supplied some nifty choreography – some of it tap –  for himself, Ted Levy, Sara Brians and Mary Giattino to perform, and their contributions were among the highlights of the evening. Aside from Levy, who sang as well as danced, there were five singers – Broadway veterans Anita Gillette and Tom Wopat, Amy Burton, Catherine Russell and Jason Graae – and I liked all of them except for Burton, who has a strong soprano but a tendency to play-act her way through the lyric. Everyone else seemed wonderfully relaxed, and Graae, who got to sing “Looking at You” as well as the two sexiest songs, “Pilot Me” and “Fish,” was especially charming. The remarkable seventeen-piece band, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, was showcased on every number, and Giordano and trumpeter Bria Skonberg both sang. No one in the audience seemed to mind the interpolations – not just “The Man I Love” (sung by Russell), which Frances Gershwin probably sang in the original revue, but the five much better-known Porter tunes from the twenties and early thirties that provided a bridge between the two halves of the show. The audience, in fact, seemed transported. Little wonder.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment