Kiss Me Kate – London Coliseum

Music and lyrics: Cole Porter

Book: Bella and Samuel Spewack

Director: Jo Davies

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Is it possible that what can no longer be spoken can still be sung? The Taming of the Shrew, once one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, is now rarely seen in our theatres, seemingly swept away on a tide of political correctness. On the other hand, Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s 1948 musical based upon the same play, remains a perennial favourite, revived in various forms at regular intervals.

The show made its West End debut in 1951 at this same theatre, now the home of English National Opera. Opera North’s revival first appeared in Leeds in 2015 and, after touring the United Kingdom, it now arrives in London for the first time.

The book by Belle and Samuel Spewick is constructed wittily, following a theatre company as it performs a production of …Shrew in Baltimore prior to Broadway. Actor/manager Fred Graham (Quirijn de Lang) and leading lady Lilli Vanessi (Stephanie Corley) are celebrating the first anniversary of their divorce and their real-life clashes are mirrored by the warfare between their characters in the play, Petruchio and Kate. As long as 70 years ago, the writers could have realised that Shakespeare’s proposition that all it takes to tame a woman is a good spanking needed toning down and, by veiling it in mockery, they just about get away with it.

Even so, the eventual acceptance of subservience by both Kate and Liili draws hisses of disapproval from a 2018 audience, notwithstanding the conclusions being made more palatable by  Dutch baritone de Lang’s lack of real authority as either Petruchio or Fred. Similarly, Corley always seem to struggle to make her characters sufficiently shrewish to need too much taming. Shakespeare’s Bianca is played by flirty starlet Lois Lane (a zestful Zoë Rainey) whose less than super man, Bill Calhoun (a jauntily tap dancing Alan Burkitt) accumulates gambling debts between performances as Lucentio.

Most of Porter’s songs are timeless classics, although not all of them connect with the book as well as perhaps they should. The cheesy Wunderbar feels as if it was thrown in as an afterthought and it is a mystery what Too Darn Hot has to do with this show. However, it gives us a darn good second act opener in which Will Tuckett’s choreography shines. Some songs suit operatic voices better than others. Corley sings So In Love perfectly, but her sweet soprano tones drain all the venom out of I Hate Men.

When an opera company takes on a work created for musical theatre, it can be expected that what is gained in musicality may come at the expense of theatricality. Here the Opera North Orchestra, conducted by James Holmes, and the Opera North Chorus recreate the sounds of Broadway gloriously. Given the luxury of a huge company of singers and dancers, director Jo Davies’ production often looks unusually over-crowded, more typical of a Verdi opera than a Porter musical. She finds flashes of comic invention without aver nearing the consistent sparkle of Trevor Nunn’s 2012 revival at Chichester and then the Old Vic. As was the style in the 1940s, long gaps occur between musical numbers and these sections need many more injections of energy than they get here.

Kiss Me, Kate is a show that nearly always gets “stolen” near the end when the two mobsters chasing Bill’s debts tell us Brush Up Your Shakespeare. This version proves to be no exception as John Savournin and Joseph Shovelton nail the number with aplomb. It rounds off a mixed evening which is musically wunderbar, but slightly under the bar in some other respects. 

Runs until 30 June 2018 | Image: Tristram Kenton

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