The recent PBS version of "Kiss Me, Kate" is an absolutely glorious production of this classic Broadway musical comedy based on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." Standout performances and a brilliant directorial vision combine to make this THE very best production ever. The DVD of this Great Performance will rule for ages.
Rachel York as Lilli/Kate and Brent Barrett as Fred/Petruchio each bring an underlying tenderness to their off-stage characters that makes you ache to see them get back together in the end. Sure, they rant and rave and fight like wildcats, just as their on-stage counterparts do. But never do you forget that they love each other. Too many productions of this very funny show-within-a-show make the leads one dimensional and totally unlikeable, acting as if they hate each other. This production, directed by Michael Blakemore and performed throughout with tremendous energy and skill, is first and foremost a love story. Everything else - the tongue-in-cheek wit, superb singing, vibrant dancing, innovative orchestration, and even bawdy physical humor - is consistent with the passion that emanates from the two leads.
And the two leads are superb. Rachel York has a vocal range that is unequalled in musical theater today. She sings her torchy version of "So In Love" with a heartbreaking sincerity, then belts her "I Hate Men" with raucous wild abandon. She ultimately reaches the stratosphere with her amazing coloratura soprano in her screamingly funny rendition of "Kiss Me, Kate." Matching her every step of the way is Brent Barrett. He infuses his "Were Thine That Special Face" and reprise of "So in Love" with absolute adoration, but also demonstrates unbridled machismo in "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua" and "Where Is the Life That Late I Led." The chemistry between York and Barrett is palpable, even on DVD. They accentuate their volatile relationship with unexpected touches of genuine endearment, such as an unconscious tender brush of an arm during "Wunderbar" or a glistening tear in the eye during the finale.
The entire cast keeps up with the pace and tone set by York and Barrett. The show never lets down, and everyone seems to be having great good fun with the unrepressed music and lyrics of Cole Porter. This PBS version of "Kiss Me, Kate" will undoubtedly prove to be a classic, with the performances by Rachel York and Brent Barrett considered definitive. It will surely be the standard against which all future Kates are measured. It is an unabashed winner.