Kiss Me, Kate offers a rare mix of passionate romance, theatrical hijinks, and knockabout comedy, set to a Cole Porter score that’s as captivating today as in 1948, when the show won the first-ever Tony Award for Best Musical. But with so many elements to get right, Kiss Me, Kate needs stars with an extra helping of charisma and chemistry. Luckily for fans of classic musicals, Roundabout Theatre Company tapped Tony Award winner Kelli O’Hara and Tony nominee Will Chase to headline a new production set to begin performances on Valentine’s Day at Studio 54, directed by eight-time Tony nominee Scott Ellis.
“This is a big, old-fashioned, but hopefully new-fashioned, musical comedy,” says O’Hara, an expert at breathing new life into beloved shows such as South Pacific, The Pajama Game, and The King and I. In Kiss Me, Kate, she plays stage and screen diva Lilli Vanessi opposite Chase as Lilli’s ex-husband, Broadway impresario Fred Graham. During a rehearsal lunch break, O’Hara and Chase laughingly finish each other’s sentences while chatting about their decade-long friendship and their excitement at co-starring in Kiss Me, Kate.
Based on legendary acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Chase and O’Hara do double duty in a rollicking show-within-the-show version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. With a supporting cast that includes a blowhard general, a pair of gun-toting gangsters, and an ensemble of Broadway’s best dancers, Kiss Me, Kate “is a brilliant musical that’s also funny as hell,” Chase says. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”
Famous for hits such as “Wunderbar,” “Too Darn Hot,” and “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate score also includes lesser-known gems in the Shakespearean sections. “I love singing ‘Were Thine That Special Face’ and ‘Where Is the Life That Late I Led,’” Chase says, citing Porter’s witty wordplay for Fred as Petruchio. (Sample lyric: “In dear Milano / Where are you, Momo / Still selling those pictures of the Scriptures in the Duomo?”). Meanwhile, the gorgeous ballad “So in Love” is tailor-made for O’Hara’s shimmering soprano. Notes Chase, “We have operetta, we have hot jazz, we have music hall — I don’t know of another score with so much variation.”
The fact that O’Hara and Chase have been close pals since co-starring in a 2007 revival of Oklahoma! in the actress’s home state (she grew up in Elk City, Oklahoma; he is from Frankfort, Kentucky) made the rehearsal process much easier. “There’s a lot of trust involved in this show,” O’Hara says of the jealousy-fueled fight scenes between Lilli and Fred/Kate and Petruchio. “Will is very smart, and we work very similarly. There’s not a lot of ego and no self-consciousness, and I laugh so hard with him.”
Returning the compliment, Chase is thrilled to help showcase O’Hara’s funny side. “Kelli is a goofball who just happens to sing the way she does,” he says, citing their work together in the 2010 Encores production of Bells Are Ringing and their brief run in the 2012 Broadway hit Nice Work If You Can Get It. “Beyond all the accolades, which she deserves, I know I can always count on her on stage. Whatever happens — and in this show, a lot of outlandish stuff happens! — she will go with it.”
In reviving a midcentury musical comedy linked to a play with the word shrew in the title, O’Hara, Chase, and director Ellis have been taking a fresh look at Lilli and Fred’s relationship. “We’re not going to reinvent the show, and we’re not going to change Shakespeare,” O’Hara says. “We just want to show the human side of these characters.” Rather than emphasizing “submission” on the part of a supersmart heroine, both Lilli and Fred face the consequences of their jealousy and meet each other halfway.
“We’re finding some lovely colors and nuances and layers that aren’t always there with this piece,” Chase says of rehearsing Bella and Sam Spewack’s book, with additional material by Amanda Green. “It’s not necessarily how Lilli and Fred’s love story is like The Taming of the Shrew, but how it is different.” The power of memory is invoked as the couple inch toward each other, break apart, and then come together again. “I love our retelling of it,” he says.
Since their most recent Broadway appearances several years ago, O’Hara and Chase have worked steadily on TV, including his featured roles in the miniseries Sharp Objects and Stranger Things and hers in 13 Reasons Why and the Web drama The Accidental Wolf. “I’m a better actor on television because of my stage work,” says O’Hara, “but I think both of us would say that theater is our home.” Nodding, Chase says, “You leave the theatre exhausted every night, but there’s nothing like it, especially with a brilliant show like this.”
Kiss Me, Kate kicks off with the beloved showbiz anthem “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” a song that makes O’Hara feel emotional every time she hears it. “It’s our lives!” she exclaims. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years, and here we are again.” In an art-imitates-life scene, “there’s a ghost light on the stage, the lights come up, the orchestra sounds, and the dancing begins,” says O’Hara. “You see how much this moment means to Lilli, coming back to the theater after being a movie star. This is home for her too.”
Beyond the pleasure of reviving a classic musical for the first time in two decades, O’Hara and Chase look forward to sharing an evening of joy and romance in Kiss Me, Kate. “I needed something that was fun right now,” she declares. “I think we as a society need that. I want to laugh for the next six months, and everyone who comes to see our show can expect to have a lot of fun.”
Photo by Jake Chessum.