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The curtain rises with the wonderful "Another Op'nin', Another Show."
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By Michael Coveney

This version of Cole Porter's and Bella and Sam Spewack's "Kiss Me, Kate" is a treat from beginning to end. I thought so when I saw it on Broadway in early 2000 and again in London, where it opened in October 2001. In between, of course, New York suffered the devastation of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and business at the Broadway box office suddenly dipped. The cast and stage crew took voluntary pay cuts, spearheading the show business-as-normal defiance in Manhattan. If any show characterizes the indomitable spirit of American theater, it is "Kiss Me, Kate," and in London, we felt exactly the same way about it. We were as moved and excited as any proud New Yorker.

Why is this the production of one's dreams? It is like a gift from the theater to its audience, a tumult of theatrical invention and irresistible, energetic fizz. "Kiss Me, Kate" should always be like this, because it is about the rambunctious life of a touring acting company putting on a revival of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." And, of course, the musical is one of the all-time classic improvement jobs on Shakespeare. Others in quite a short list include Rodgers and Hart's "The Boys from Syracuse" and Verdi's "Othello." But of all the productions of "Kiss Me, Kate" I've seen, this one is the tops, combining the show's old-fashioned, lip-smacking literacy with a contemporary, vibrant mood of the battle of the sexes. It does honor to a musical theater classic without embalming it in reverential fluid.

The binding of the two parallel worlds is the on-and-off romance -- onstage and backstage (devised by Bella Spewack) -- of the leading characters, Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi. As played by Brent Barrett (Fred) alongside Rachel York (Lilli), this sexual contest is fueled by real megawatt charm. The musical begins with the wonderful opening number "Another Op'nin', Another Show," and often can decline from this start. Here, however, the song conveys the buzz and excitement backstage until it bursts forth into the show itself and irradiates the entire evening. The energy flow is constant, and the lead couple is supported by the dazzling "second couple" -- Lucentio and Bianca -- the amazingly athletic Michael Berresse and the gorgeous Nancy Anderson. At one point, Berresse actually vaults like a gymnast up the entire height of the set in "Bianca."

With the brilliant direction of Michael Blakemore and some judicious tweaking of Sam and Bella Spewack's script -- the first ever to win a Tony Award for Best Book (Musical) -- Lilli's stuffed-shirt fiancé, a presidential adviser, becomes a humorless, straitlaced U.S. Army General. This part of the show now contains a terrific new gag about Noël Coward, and the general joins Lilli in a delirious version of "From This Moment On" (imported from another Porter musical) as a mad military march. He tries to ensnare her with a vision of first lady status, and that song explains her decision to opt out.

Similarly, the dynamic of the show is reinforced when the two small-time hoods accidentally embroiled in the plot get stuck into "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and end up loving every minute of their spell in the spotlight. And the brilliant choreography of Kathleen Marshall makes the costume apparatus of both Elizabethan and New York sexual signaling -- codpieces, suspender belts, cami-knickers, and stockings -- suggest nothing but healthy, amorous fun.

Top banner photos: Rachel York as Lilli Vanessi; Brent Barrett and Rachel York as the dueling romantic leads, Petruchio and Katharine, in "The Taming of the Shrew"; Nancy Anderson in the number "Always True to You in My Fashion."

Teddy Kempner and Jack Chissick

The hoodlums (Teddy Kempner and Jack Chissick), who get entangled in the onstage drama, perform "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

Nolan Frederick and ensemble

Paul (Nolan Frederick) leads the ensemble in the rousing "Too Darn Hot."

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