With the show’s return to Broadway after two decades away, 2019 really shouldn’t have been a depressing year for Kiss Me Kate, but it was. The February production at Chaffin’s Barn Theatre, Nashville, Tennessee, starring Matthew Carlton and Martha Wilkinson, showed the way the wind was blowing. The two actors were revisiting roles they had played at the very same theater in the 1990s, but there was a signal difference between the two productions: in 2019, the spanking was done offstage – which completely undermines the play’s treatment of it as an egregious public insult that motivates Lilli’s attempted early exit from the show. Sadly, but predictably, an idiotic Nashville reviewer praised the decision for creating ‘doubt as to exactly who is on the receiving end of the taming’.
This kind of censorship reached its natural conclusion with the Broadway production starring Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase,
which had the script adapted in an effort to eliminate perceived sexism. Sadly but inevitably, this involved cutting out the spanking altogether: the director, the two stars and the adapter, Amanda Green, had a preliminary meeting and were unanimous in one opinion, to wit, ‘None of us wanted to see her spanked’ – so the business was out of the show right from the start. Meanwhile, several local theaters across America that had scheduled productions of Kiss Me Kate, did something even more drastic, but much more honest: when certain individuals complained that they were putting on a sexist musical with, horror of horrors, a spanking scene, KMK was pulled and replaced with something else.
I’ve written elsewhere about this irrational, illiberal, toxic phenomenon, so there’s no need to go on at length about it now. Instead, let’s accentuate the positive and settle down to enjoy the productions that did happen, in which Lilli was spanked, was seen to be spanked and was also shown being spanked in pictures released before or after the event. We begin on February 1 at a liberal arts college in Minnesota:
Also opening on February 1, and running until February 10, at a high school in Connecticut:
And the next day, KMK opened at St Petersburg Opera, Florida, and also ran until February 10. Michael Kelly was Fred, and during rehearsals he used social media to ‘tweet’ a KMK spanking picture from 1961 at Michele Sexton, anticipating what he was going to do to her onstage:
You may also like to know that the parts were understudied by Stephen M. Ray and Caitlyn McKechney, who would have had an experience similar to the above in their own rehearsals!
Also in February, at a high school in Oklahoma:
The musical played from March 22 through April 14 at the Ice House Theatre in Mount Dora, Florida, with this tabletop spanking:
And from April 18 through 28, at a community college in New Jersey:
The video may be viewable here.
An amateur production ran at Tinkers Farm Opera, Stourbridge, England, May 8-11. Here are husband-and-wife team Dan and Kate in rehearsal:
Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, produced a month’s run of Kiss Me Kate, May 17 to June 16, and made some publicity play of capitalizing on the fiery Latino temperaments of its two stars, Cuban Andrew Varela and Puerto Rican Rana Roman.
You might think this would make for an enjoyably tempestuous fight scene. But the production also suffered from 2019’s ongoing fit of irrational nerves about the spanking. At least, unlike more pusillanimous productions, the director, Ray Jivoff, didn’t cut it out: he recognized that it was ‘hard-baked’ into the show as part of an escalating sequence of progressively more unprofessional tit-for-tat behavior by Fred and Lilli, meaning it couldn’t be removed and had to take place onstage. But he also accepted the view that in itself it is an especially problematic moment, and tried to defuse it in the way it was staged. Here’s his version:
Repeat for emphasis: this is the spanking scene, not the later wedding scene when Petruchio carries off Kate over his shoulder. The objective was to put Lilli into a position where she could hit back at the same time as she was being spanked: OTS allows her to reach his rear end just as much as it lets him reach hers, so the thing can be ‘balanced’ in mutuality. The bespoke synopsis in the program makes it explicit:
Fred steps out of the play and throws Lilli over his shoulder, carrying her offstage as he spanks her and she spanks him.
At least they were trying, but of course, they’d totally missed the point that the spanking is his affront against her, and that it gets balanced by hers against him before and after. And as a result the production also painted itself into a corner and wound up having to change the wedding scene to avoid a duplication of business, meaning Kate was carried off like this:
It’s just not the same! But at least we can award points not only for rightly keeping the spanking onstage in a difficult climate, but also for the way the aftermath was presented, with Lilli’s phone call to tell her military beau what happened. Most productions have her upright and rubbing her rear, but in Milwaukee there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Miss Vanessi couldn’t sit down:
Apparently untroubled by American neuroses, Europe carried on regardless. June 28 saw the opening of a production at the Eutin theater festival in Germany, with Peter Bording and Patricia Hodell. It ran for two months, closing on August 24. And quite clearly nobody (with the probable exception of Miss Lilli Vanessi) was embarrassed by the spanking scene:
In this Bulgarian production, which opened in Burgas Opera September 4, Marco Apostolov’s Fred chose a less compromising angle for the spanking of Edelina Kaneva’s Lilli:
But let’s go round and see it from the other side…
November 5-9 saw a production by Our Lady’s Musical Society in Motherwell, Scotland:
And later that month, from November 21 through 24, here are husband and wife Tony and Angela Lowe in the production by Brussels Light Opera Company:
And on the very last day of the year, KMK opened at Theater Stralsund in Germany. Patricia Hodell returned to the role she had played in Eutin during the summer, and her Fred was Christian Alexander Muller. Here they are in rehearsal, trying the spanking scene one way…
But all of that doesn’t overturn the general sense that 2019 was a relatively disappointing year for KMK spanking. So let’s get a more balanced perspective by considering the fortunes of the spankingless Broadway revival with Kelli O’Hara, which began previews on February 14, officially opened a month later and closed June 30 – a run of less than five months overall, outstripped by almost every previous major revival and paltry compared with the 1077 performances of the original 1948-52 Broadway production, or the 881 (plus previews) of the revised 1999-2001 version. On the whole, the critics were underwhelmed, and although those connected with the show have tried to spin it as award-nominated, largely on the basis of four Tony nominations, the truth is that none of those four translated into a win, and the nomination for Best Revival of a Musical was less an accolade than an inevitability in view of the fact that Broadway saw only one other musical revival that year, Daniel Fish’s edgy version of Oklahoma! (which won, deservedly). This bowdlerized Kiss Me Kate was not so much award-nominated as award-losing. It would be ludicrously tunnel-visioned to suggest that was simply because they removed the spanking, but it is fair to say that Amanda Green’s overall efforts to sanitize the book were not felicitous, and deserve no praise.
Even so, it is sad to have to end with the observation that we can expect more of the same in years to come. Towards the end of 2019, a spring 2020 production at the University of Virginia pre-announced itself as paying ‘homage to the iconic Cole Porter show while also reimagining it for a modern audience’, and you can guess what that likely means for our favorite scene. It looks as if we remain stuck with the notion that Kiss Me Kate is not just a play to be performed (or else left in the historical archive), that it is also a problem that must be solved for the sake of twenty-first-century theatergoers who are presumed to have narrower minds than their parents and grandparents. Hopefully at least some modern audiences, especially in the more genuinely liberal and open-minded countries of Europe, will conversely remain stuck with, and so have the opportunity to enjoy, the spanking scene.
But then the unexpected happened, and not in a good way, as we shall see when we pass on to 2020.