Kisses for Kate

The 54-year-old musical is looking lovelier than ever.

Kiss Me, Kate / Dinner With Friends Kiss Me, Kate
Palace Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, Playhouse Square through May 19; 216-241-6000

Dinner With Friends
Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue through June 2; 216-795-7000

Rachel York, Rex Smith, and the Kiss Me - company.
Rachel York, Rex Smith, and the Kiss Me company.
In the harsh gray light of real life, bearing witness to squabbling spouses ranks with root canal and taxes. Miraculously, through the mysterious transformational powers of art, two stage works that focus on marital acrimony manage to be enchanting in one case and riveting in the other.

Kiss Me, Kate opened in December 1948, when Rodgers and Hammerstein's socially relevant musicals were the style and Cole Porter was considered a relic of another age. His Kate debuted to low expectations. Yet, when it surprisingly racked up 1,077 performances, it proved to be one of the most perfect of musicals. Even The New York Times declared it "some baffling miracle."

Inflation has raised Kate's value a hundredfold. With its effortless combination of burlesque, New Yorker sophistication, Viennese schmaltz, peerless wordplay, and buoyancy, it is one of 20th-century popular culture's indisputable treasures.

Sam and Bella Spewack's script concerns the reunion of tempestuous acting couple Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi one year after their divorce. They are the stars of a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. The Shakespearean onstage rows are skillfully paralleled with the couple's backstage love-hate feud. The tale is chock-a-block with malaproping gangsters, a lovably voracious floozie, an irresponsible crap-shooting juvenile, and the de rigueur pompous fiancé. It has all the elements of a typical '40s Bob Hope comic epic, magically elevated by an urban elegance and Porter's musical sorcery.

After the legendary original production, no cast or director was able to match its sheen until English director Michael Blakemore crossed the Atlantic to work with choreographer Kathleen Marshall. They've emphasized the physical comedy, prompting their romantic leads to wrestle and pander for laughs with a blatant crassness that would have caused their elegant predecessors to blanch. The dancing is far more aerobic and complicated as well. "Too Darn Hot" has grown from a throwaway act-two opener to a fiery jazz epic chronicling the amorous pursuits of company members during a sultry intermission.

Blakemore excels at conjuring emotional resonance. This skill is most in evidence when he has his actors make their entrance during the overture, immediately linking the characters to their musical motifs and thereby connecting the story to the music.

The revival's one miscalculation is playwright John Guare's updating of the book with sexual innuendo that goes too far for the period. Even worse is the addition of a Porter standard from another show that throws Kate's perfect equilibrium off balance. It's akin to a bad hairdo on a classic beauty.

This touring production compares well to its Broadway counterpart. Rachel York's Lilli has everything her demanding role requires: She's vivacious, sings wittily, and manages to be fiery and winsome at the same time. As her errant leading man, Rex Smith, a former pop star and Gilbert and Sullivan tenor, is vocally and physically wrong for a part written for a burly baritone. Because of this, he has to work harder at the role, but his professionalism and charisma are ultimately endearing. Kevin Neil McCready, as the naughty dancing juvenile, looks like a Boticelli angel and dances with the wicked abandon of a satyr, conquering the stage with his athleticism. Jenny Hill has the requisite curves, but lacks the necessary vocal sparkle to do justice to Porter's saucy coquette.

Overall, the company and the orchestra do their part to resurrect the golden age of the Broadway musical. For the uninitiated, here is an ideal opportunity to catch up with the all-but-lost glories of America's most jubilant art form.

The Cleveland Play House concludes its season with Donald Margulies's provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends. It functions in much the same way as jalapeño-spiked salsa: harmless enough at first, but increasingly uncomfortable on the way down.

The recipe can be easily summarized: The happy symbiosis of two couples is shattered when one of them breaks up. This erodes the friendship and causes the remaining couple to painfully reexamine their own relationship, especially when they learn their friends have found happiness with others.

Besides being witty and well-observed, Dinner offers keen psychological insight into the fragile ecosystem that keeps relationships functioning.

Unfortunately, director Seth Gordon is better at the lighter aspects of the play and less successful with its dark, psychological underpinnings.

David Colacci, as Gabe, is a gifted comic actor. Staring up longingly at his taller wife, he skillfully lets the insecurities peek through his adorable gnome. Susan Ericksen, playing Gabe's wife Karen, deftly captures the desperation of a controlling personality. In her stage debut, Kate Hodge demonstrates an amazing proficiency for projecting character nuance. Her Beth is appealing, yet nervous and neurotic. Wayne Maugans, as Beth's ex-husband Tom, is a meticulous actor able to suggest hidden flaws and surface charm.

Even slightly diluted, Dinner With Friends remains a stinging jolt to the senses.

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