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Kiss Me, Kate. at the Martin Beck

The smashing revival of Kiss Me, Kate that’s still playing to full houses on Broadway seems to revive everything that was wonderful about the Golden Age of American musical theatre, and if the producers had only had the courage to can the amplification, the evening would have been perfect. There were just enough updating touches to signify that this was a revival, not an exhumation. Of course, there’s an additional dimension to the revival: when the show was first produced in 1948, the only period costumes on display were worn in the play-with-the-play – Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Now, Marin Mazzie begins her glorious reincarnation of a Margo Channing-class diva by strolling onstage in a New Look outfit that, we now know, was really the Old, prewar Look, probably more dependent on rigorous foundation garments than anything Elizabethan.

Rigorous foundation underpins almost everything that happens onstage. As befits a backstager, displays of professional virtuosity provide the real drama, and there is plenty of it here. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such complete assurance demonstrated by the entire cast of a musical comedy. The lines between dance and blocking, and between song and speech, pale to an extent that would do The Magic Flute proud. But I’m not going to take up the rather silly argument about whether musical comedies like Kiss Me, Kate are operas. Instead, I’m going to wish that musical comedy audiences behaved like their counterparts at the Met.

Here’s what I mean: Anthony Tommasini ends a review of some free Beethoven quartet concerts thus: “And when the performances of the final quartet ended, the Orion players were greeted with a standing, whooping ovation. This was not an occasion for a critic to quibble over intonation and phrasing. The Chamber Music Society intended this series as a gift to New York, and it was received as a generous and exciting one.” (The New York Times, May 25, 2000, p. E1.) What makes me uncomfortable is the idea that critical standards are supererogatory at best whenever untutored people are having a good time.

Because Lincoln Center audiences are not comprised of the untutored, their responses provide a meaningful judgment upon the performance. It’s true that I’ve more than once chafed at tepid applause, at Philharmonic Concerts, for outstanding performances of unpopular or unknown works. Precisely because enthusiastic accolades are uncommon, though, they’re rapturous when they do occur, and add greatly to the pleasures of the evening. I would hate to see the cast of Kiss Me, Kate rewarded with lukewarm, short-lived applause by people who hadn’t been to the theatre before, but I wouldn’t miss the roar of carnival excitement that greeted almost every bow.

(I suppose nobody’s not been to the theatre before anymore. Television has put an end to that deficiency. Did the producers of, say, The Carol Burnett Show – as close to the theatre experience as television ever afforded - feel that they had to work the studio audience up to a pitch of screaming and whistling in order to move viewers at home?)

The kind of audience that greeted the premiere of Kiss Me, Kate fifty-two years ago is with rare exceptions no longer seen on Broadway but only off-, at venues such as MTC, the Lucile Lortel, and the Variety Arts, where the plays are rather less predictable. Where one might actually get to see, someday, the plays of Dawn Powell, which I’ve been reading at night. Powell’s champion, Tim Page, teamed up with Michael Sexton to bring out a Steerforth edition of four of her ten stage works, Big Night, Jig Saw, Women at Four O’clock, and Walking Down Broadway. I knew about Jig Saw from Powell’s diaries; her entry for April 26, 1934 (written during the play’s out-of-town run in Washington) mordantly contrasts Spring Byington’s comic technique to that of Ernest Truex and Cora Witherspoon. Reading along, I thought that Byington’s role would have been great for Irene Dunne, if Dunne had ever played a woman so completely unmoored from virtue. Then I turned Walking Down Broadway, which has never been staged. The two are very different: while Jig Saw’ strikes the same seedily sophisticated note that plays through Powell’s New York novels, Walking Down Broadway takes a clear but tender look at a quartet of young people who have not very long ago left small towns for the bright lights and the big chances.

Toward the end of their introduction to the collection, Messrs. Sexton and Page conclude that “Powell writes about people who are going nowhere, but who are determined to have as good a time getting there as possible.” I would say rather that Powell writes about people who have already done their going. They may never do any better, but they have managed to land somewhere in Manhattan. Like Powell, they lead precarious lives, particularly the women, but distract themselves by going to as many parties as possible. Loners are rare in Powell, for there’s no telling what opportunity may show up for a drink.

The girls in Walking Down Broadway, Marge and Elsie, come from the same small town of Marble Falls – and who wouldn’t leave a town with such an unlucky-sounding name? – but a friendship formed in such thin air can’t sustain either of them in New York, where people come in so many different shapes, and when Marge finds she has a big problem, she confides in the girl next door, whom Elsie can’t stand. One foresees that Marge and Elsie won’t take long to fall out of touch. If they manage this badly, they may even come to forget that they were ever roommates. If they manage it gracefully, then once every ten years ago, Marge and her husband will get on a train just to go out and spend the evening with Elsie and her husband – or vice versa. Children will wonder who these strange visitors are, and what it means to be so visibly choked up about old friends whom, for all that, one never sees.

What’s it like to come to New York alone? And I do mean alone – without relatives, or old friends (at an age when all old friends are school friends) to give a context. I wonder if anyone still does. (May 2000)

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