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By JOHN FLEMING
Kiss Me, Kate was the last holdout. Of all the great American musical comedies from the golden age of the 1940s and '50s, it was the only one that had never been given a full-blown Broadway revival until the production that won the 2000 Tony Award for best revival.
Now the Cole Porter classic is on tour, with Rex Smith and Rachel York as the divorced matinee idols, Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, who are playing Petruchio and Kate in a road company production of The Taming of the Shrew.
"So when we sing Another Op'nin, Another Show, we really mean it," York said from a stop in East Lansing, Mich.
This is York's first national tour, but Smith is a veteran of the road, having headlined productions of Grease! and Annie Get Your Gun that passed through the Tampa Bay area in recent years. Both actors have also appeared in several shows on Broadway, where they co-starred in The Scarlet Pimpernel.
"What I like about a touring group," Smith said, "is the sensibility of roustabouts who sign on the bottom line to take it on the road. When you're on Broadway, you do the show and you go home. When you're on the road, you're all in it together. It tightens up the cast."
Kiss Me, Kate is a wonderfully inventive show (poet W.H. Auden called it a greater work than Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew) whose battling stars were modeled on Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, playing the shrew and her tamer in a 1930s production.
For inspiration in developing his character, Smith looked to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whom he got to know while starring in the soap opera As the World Turns in the early 1990s. York's inspiration was Joan Crawford.
"She had that ability to walk around as an open wound, and Lilli Vanessi has the same quality," she said.
Porter's witty one-liners are tough enough, but many a staging of Kiss Me, Kate has really foundered on the Shakespearean text. Director Michael Blakemore worked with Smith and York to keep things moving.
"One thing that Michael stressed is that it's like a tennis match, and you can't miss the ball," she said. "The lines have to go bam, bam, bam. He likes them quick and crisp."
When Shakespeare meets Porter, as in songs like I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua or Where Is the Life That Late I Led? or (most famously) Brush Up Your Shakespeare, the effect is exhilarating. The performer's job is to make it seem effortless.
For example, in singing Porter's deft lyrics for Where Is the Life That Late I Led?, Smith has barely a moment to catch his breath.
"In rehearsal, I had to constantly tell myself to breathe, breathe, breathe," he said. "When someone else is speaking, I have to remember to breathe and get the oxygen in my body, because I'm going to need it. Now my body knows what's necessary. It's a little like I'm riding a bike and know that here come the Pyrenees and what gear to put it in."
Smith, 45, who was born in Jacksonville, came by his musical theater pedigree honestly, appearing on Broadway in a 1981 hit production of The Pirates of Penzance that starred Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. Today, he regards Kline as his mentor, and he stayed at the actor's house the night before auditioning for Kiss Me, Kate.
"I always work on material with Kevin," Smith said. "We went over the first scene between Fred and Lilli, and he said to me, "Just do it like you're talking to your ex-wife.' "
Smith's current wife, along with their 2-year-old son, is on the yearlong tour with him. Courtney Schrage Smith was formerly a probation officer in Toronto, where Rex starred in Sunset Boulevard.
"I'm on parole the rest of my life," Smith quipped. "She's also my manager."
Smith was a teen idol in the 1970s, when his album Sooner or Later went platinum and he played Danny Zuko in Grease! He hosted the syndicated TV series Solid Gold. Despite his pop background, he's not a big fan of musicals like Mamma Mia!, the current hit that cobbles together Abba songs into a paper-thin plot.
"After Mamma Mia!, I think it's inevitable that YMCA: The Musical is next," he said. "If that ain't coming down the pipeline, I'll eat my in-room menu."
He thinks a classic like Kiss Me, Kate is a better introduction to theater than any number of pop musical hybrids.
"If you take your favorite episode of Friends and you follow the family tree, you're going to go back to Shakespeare. I'm delighted when I see younger people at the show because I know they're getting a firsthand account of what a real Broadway show is in its purest form."
Kiss Me, Kate opens Tuesday and continues through Dec. 9 at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $23.50-$65.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045. Web site: www.tbpac.org.
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From the wire