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How a canceled production led to Stephanie Styles' Broadway debut
"This may be my first time on Broadway, but a lot has led me to here," says Stephanie Styles, the 27-year-old triple threat playing Lois in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Cole Porter's musical comedy Kiss Me, Kate. A Houston native who's been performing professionally since her teens, Styles was originally poised to make her Broadway debut five years ago when she was cast in a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring James Corden. But when the British funnyman landed The Late Late Show, the production was postponed indefinitely .
Yet that dream deferred actually led to her Kiss Me, Kate gig, since both shows were cast by Jim Carnahan. Over the years, the veteran casting director thought about Styles for other parts, ultimately hiring her for the 2016 dark comedy Kingdom Come, which ran Off-Broadway at Roundabout Underground. Last summer, Styles was in Los Angeles shooting the upcoming Netflix series Bonding when she read that Roundabout would be reviving Kiss Me, Kate, and it seemed like kismet.
"As a sophomore at the University of Michigan, we had these crazy finals where we did all these scenes and songs, and one of the songs I sang was Lois' big number, 'Always True to You (In My Fashion)'," she recalls. Plus, as the lead in 2017's Roman Holiday, a Cole Porter catalogue musical that ran in San Francisco, Styles became a master at interpreting his witty, wordplay-filled songs.
So when her agent called to say Carnahan and director Scott Ellis wanted to see her for Lois, she flew right over -- literally. "I got on a red-eye on Saturday. Woke up in New York on Sunday. Went straight to my friend's apartment where I did my own hair and makeup and went to the Tonys. Then the next morning I was auditioning for Kiss Me, Kate. On Thursday I got it. My longest dream was to do a musical on Broadway -- especially a musical like this."
That makes sense since Kiss Me, Kate is an ideal showcase for Styles' talents. The backstage tuner follows the drama-filled relationships of two sets of couples as they mount a musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase play Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham, tempestuous divorcés starring as Katharine and Petruchio. Styles and Corbin Bleu portray Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, who take on the show-within-a-show roles of Bianca and Lucentio. Although Styles has the looks of a leading lady, she's got the soul of an old-school character actress, and that's perfect for Lois, an incorrigible, Noo Yawk-accented flirt who vamps, belts, hoofs and punch lines her way through the sublime comic numbers "Always True to You (In My Fashion)" and "Tom, Dick or Harry."
In the latter, a trio of dancers battles for her affections, tossing and twirling her like a glamorous prop. "Always True to You (In My Fashion)" is her showstopping Act II solo, a humorous ode to her coquettish, sugar-baby ways. Not only does she nail every punny verse ("From Ohio, Mister Thorn, Calls me up from night till morn, Mister Thorn once cornered corn and that ain't hay"), she does so while executing Warren Carlyle's demanding choreography, which includes singing upside down.
"People throw the term 'genius' around loosely, but Warren is a genius," Styles says. "He just really gets me, my vocabulary of comic vaudeville sexiness. The day we started working on 'Always True,' we began by looking at 'Make 'Em Laugh' from Singin' in the Rain. Then he brought out a plank, a rolling rack, a ladder and other stuff and said, 'Let's just see what we can do with all these things.' The rolling rack bit is my favorite. I remember he said, 'What if one of these pieces of clothing is your man?' After that rehearsal, I stayed up all night videotaping myself with a jacket, trying to figure out how to dance with it to make it look like a man. Warren gives you a playground to experiment in and then you figure it out together."
Despite Kiss Me, Kate's slew of classic songs ("Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Too Darn Hot," "So In Love," "Wunderbar," "Brush Up Your Shakespeare") and meta take on the Bard, the creative team was concerned that, in this day and age, certain elements of the 71-year-old musical could come off as sexist. So there have been adjustments in the staging (for example, Petruchio no longer takes Kate over his knee to spank her, though there's plenty of other slapstick) and some lyrics and lines have been modified.
Styles believes these alterations have only made the show stronger. "We don't change the things that work," she says. "It is still the Kiss Me, Kate that your mother knows and loves. These are small, simple tweaks to make it palatable for our time and not cause distractions." She also notes that, where Lois and Bill are concerned, "Our stuff hasn't changed all that much. They are incredibly equal. They believe in each other and call each other out on their addictions, whether it's flirtation or gambling. And they want each other to succeed, to get their dreams. They're a very flawed but very equal couple, which I think is refreshing."
Top image: Corbin Bleu and Stephanie Styles in Kiss Me, Kate. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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