Cole Porter has suddenly grown a heart as big as Rodgers & Hammerstein. It’s just a guess, but musicals like “Oklahoma!” and “The King and I” receive more revivals than ones by Porter because they’re musical romances. Porter, on the other hand, wrote musical comedies, not that he didn’t know how to write a terrific love song. Take “So in Love” from “Kiss Me, Kate,” which opened Monday at Roundabout’s Studio 54. It comes early in the show, and as sung by Kelli O’Hara in this revival, it makes the next two and a half hours glow with the wistful longing and sweet desperation of a diva in love.
Despite her Tony Award and long career on Broadway, the word “diva” has never quite fit O’Hara. Indeed, she’s an odd choice to be playing a movie star who’s returning to the theater to play opposite her former husband in a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The only word less appropriate than “diva” for O’Hara would be “shrew.”
Her masterful rendition of “So in Love” is so heartfelt that we may overlook her rather genteel take on the Bard, but maybe not. O’Hara plays the movie star Lilli Vanessi for real, turning her into a cool Veronica Lake complete with long, sometimes peekaboo, blond hair. There’s nothing send-up or buffoonish about this performance; in fact, she sometimes conveys the impression that her Lilli is slumming a bit in this less than first-rate production of a musical “Shrew” that’s opening in Baltimore. (David Rockwell’s sets are appropriately seedy looking.).
What O’Hara is is in love. When Lilli’s ex-husband Fred Graham (Will Chase) sends a bouquet to his current paramour, the chorus girl Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles), and the flowers end up in the star’s dressing room by mistake, O’Hara’s meltdown when she learns the truth is a heartrending reversal of her singing “So in Love.” By the way, O’Hara is in great voice throughout and has never sounded more thrilling.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and Chase presents a red-hot lover on the rebound. He eschews playing the impresario-actor Fred Graham as a big ham. He’s actually an excellent Petruchio in the musical-within-a-musical scenes, and his pursuit of Lilli backstage is tinged with just enough recklessness to make it real. It’s a little odd to hear this character’s music, originally written for a bass-baritone, to be sung by a lighter voice. Chase’s best notes are up there in tenor territory, but at least they’re good notes.
Scott Ellis can be credited with keeping his two leads playing from the same slightly jaded Valentine’s Day poem. He wisely keeps the more manic comedy to the show’s secondary couple, Lois Lane and her boyfriend, Bill Calhoun. Playing that chronic cuckold, “High School Musical” and “Dancing With the Stars” alum Corbin Bleu leads a spectacularly danced “Too Darn Hot,” with choreographer Warren Carlyle in top form.
Slightly more droll are the twin vaudevillians John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams as two gun-toting gangsters. The shtick is expertly handled and marred only by the inclusion of a 21st-century joke about gun control.
The other misfire is the handling of “From This Moment On,” delivered by Lilli’s fiance, Gen. Harrison Howell (Terence Archie), in a way meant to show the character’s dictatorial approach to love. (The 1999 Broadway revival of “Kate” turned Harrison into a general, and that revision of Sam and Bella Spewack’s 1948 book stands here.) Archie’s under-pitch singing brings a certain levity to the number, but sometimes his horseplay with O’Hara borders on physical abuse.
In that 1999 revival, Marin Mazzie gave the audience a big wink at show’s end to assuage any sexist taint. O’Hara’s wry retreat with Chase is much more sophisticated.