Writers: Bella and Samuel Spewick
Composer &Lyricist: Cole Porter
Director: Jo Davies
Reviewer: Kris Hallett
Kiss Me Kate, the third and final show of Welsh National Opera’s Shakespeare 400 season, is like an effervescent sugar hit. Anyone with a soul will find a massive grin etched permanently to their face for the entirety of its three- hour running time. Cole Porter’s 1948 musical, the first winner of the Best Musical Tony award, is charming, witty and possessed of hit after hit. It is already a winner long before WNO cut loose with it, their orchestra creating a big jazz band sound that can only be replicated in sheer scope and class when the big subsidised orchestras tackle it head on.
Backstage dramas have always been a staple of the theatre and this clever parallel between the backstage drama of a company producing a musical version of Shakespeare’s Shrew keeps both stories bubbling along nicely. So as Petruchio attempts to bring to heel Katherine on stage, actor-manager Fred Graham is in a colossal battle of the sexes with his leading lady and former wife Lilli Vanessi backstage. Mix in a couple of gangsters who are chasing an IOU and a couple of Broadway hoofers with their own relationship strife, and all the ingredients are in place for a recipe that Porter and the book writers Bella and Samuel Spewack brought to tasty completion.
The Taming Of The Shrew has been seen as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, with its depiction of a strong woman being battered, sometimes literally, into submission by an alpha male. Yet long before directors started interpolating their own subtext to make this more palatable, Kiss Me Kate balances the lovers as equal. Fred may hold the cards as director and leading actor, but without the star wattage of his former partner Lilli, he is sunk. There is no doubt that these two need each other, there is a fine line between love and hate and these two cross that border time and time again. Katherine/Lilli may return to their husband at the end, but the relationship has become a partnership of equals.
In previous seasons, WNO’s casting of its yearly musical, with a mix of opera singers and West End performers, has on occasion caused an awkward clash of styles but on this occasion it works perfectly. As Fred, Quirijn de Lang brings a more boyish energy and look than often seen in the role, but when he opens his mouth and his deep baritone rumbles out, he sounds the equal of Howard Keel. Jeni Bern brings glamour, a strong soprano and comic chops to Lilli, her I Hate Men bringing cheers early to proceedings.
The hits keep coming all night, aided by Will Tuckett’s sensational choreography for the company in opener Another op’nin’, another show and second half curtain raiser Too darn hot. Amelia Adams Pearce and Alan Burkitt both shine in their individual numbers as the secondary lovers, while Brush Up Your Shakespeare brings the house down over three reprises from the little and large combination of Joseph Shovelton and John Savourin. The whole night is one big present for WNO, a hit that if there is any sense, should become a key part of their repertoire over the next few years.
Runs until 15 October 2016 and continues to tour | Image: Richard Hubert Smith