The Con is on, the one week of the summer where Hollywood backs away from a major release to play wet nurse to a bunch of duded-up fanboys in celebration of everything that’s wrong with contemporary cinema. What better time to brush up on a stage-to-screen comparison of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, opening July 9 at the Old Globe?
Did I really want to step that far out of my comfort zone by venturing into a “legitimate” house and watching actors stand before me, pretending I’m not there? And how much more lifelike could it possibly have been than the Technicolor, two-strip stereoscopic presentation of MGM’s 1953 adaptation I caught several years back at Hollywood’s 3D Expo?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there this nasty habit of stopping the proceedings dead in their tracks while the audience applauds after each musical number? Were I to hit pause and bring hands together for every moment of genius Citizen Kane exudes, it would take days to get through the DVD.
It wasn’t that my parents were against adding a little culture to their son’s life. I distinctly remember wishing we had stopped at a downtown theater for a matinee performance of Jerry Lewis’s The Errand Boy rather than continuing up the road to the Blackstone Theatre’s production of The Sound of Music. The price of theater tickets are and always will be a bit of a luxury reserved for special occasions like Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman or Martin Scorsese’s The Act. At the end of the day, movies are still your best entertainment value.
Then there was that amateur production of The Princess and the Pea my aunt roped me into while visiting her in New Orleans. Where do you get your gaul big enough to pull seven-year-old little Scooter onstage and demand that I participate in your dance? It forever scarred me. Not a visit to a playhouse has passed where for at least a moment the thought of forced audience participation hasn’t crossed my mind.
When was the last time I attended the theatre? When they brought Molly Ringwald and Sweet Charity to town? Or was it the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre’s revival of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children? My current girlfriend’s been hocking me a chinik to take her someplace other than the movies and the Chicken Pie Shop, so what the hey? And after living in this town for going on 16 years, isn’t it about time I paid a visit to one of Our Town’s cultural landmarks?
KMK opened on December 30, 1948, ran for 1077 performances, and won the first Tony Award presented for Best Musical. In his review of the film, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther noted the musical comedy had “kept Shakespeare’s name on the theater boards of New York for a longer run than it had ever had before.”
Writers Sam and Bella Spewack modeled their recently divorced leads, Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham (played at the Globe by Anastasia Barzee and Mike McGowan), on the First Couple of Broadway, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and the egomaniacal caterwauling that went on during their 1935 Broadway production of Taming of the Shrew.
The biggest surprise was how closely the film mirrored the play. Perhaps the set-bound nature of the piece was behind MGM’s decision to select it as their first musical (and second feature) to be shot in 3D. For some violently insane reason known only to the studio brass and screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley (remembered for Esther Williams’s musicals and helping to bring Valley of the Dolls to the screen), Metro insisted the by-all-means blah Ron Randell drop in as a Cole Porter substitute who in turn plays cupid to Fred (Howard Keel) and Lilli (Kathryn Grayson).
Wanting to showcase the talents of leggy contract player Ann Miller, the role of Bianca was greatly expanded for the film adaptation. That meant repositioning “Too Darn Hot” from its placement as intermission comeback tune in the original to the show-stopper with which Miller opens the picture. Choreographer Peggy Hickey’s staging at the Globe is darn hot, indeed. James T. Lane and the cast worked the audience into a fervor. My foot was tapping so hard it came close to kicking the glasses off the guy seated in front of me.
More Miller accounted for one more cinematic casualty. Fans of “Another Opening, Another Show” can hear it played briefly in the background as a musical bridge. Not true of the Globe’s presentation, where Aurelia Williams braces the crowd with a deep, spirited rendition of the showbiz anthem.
The film version was to be director George Sidney’s (Anchors Aweigh, Show Boat) eighth and last musical for MGM. Never one to run in the same pack with Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen, Sidney’s finest addition to the genre still lie before him with a movie to Columbia and the big screen adaptation of another Broadway smash, Bye, Bye Birdie. Sidney, aided and abetted by one of Technicolor cinema’s best friends, cameraman Charles Rosher, has a bonny time stereoscopically piloting the characters and camera through Fred’s spacious (M-G-M) studio apartment. After that, it’s pure exploitation as the players hurled everything from scarves and dice to dinner plates at the cardboard glass-wearing crowds.
All was flowing smoothly until hitting a rough patch of politically correct revisionist thinking. My hope this evening was to see the play exactly the way it was presented in 1948. A little research and a listen to the original cast recording of the “Tom, Dick, and Harry” number reveals that the “dicka-dicka-dick” chorus can indeed be interpreted as Bianca’s lusting after her Tom’s hirsute protuberance. (Let’s see Cole Porter rhyme that!) I’m all for Barzee’s punching “Dick” in the lyrics. Darko Tresnjak’s addition of a nude statue of Neptune for his leading lady to call attention to with both index finger and riding crop is a bit much, but as the director told the L.A. Times, “She needs to slap the penis.”