Book: Bella and Samuel Spewack
Music and Lyrics: Cole Porter
Director: Jo Davies
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
Kiss Me, Kate revolves around the most controversial of Shakespeare’s plays, The Taming of the Shrew. Created by Cole Porter, it premiered on Broadway in 1948and won the inaugural Tony Award for Best Musical. A successful film version followed in 1953, and the show has enjoyed regular revivals since, most recently an acclaimed West End outing in 2012. This new touring production is a lavish affair, and Opera North should be congratulated on their triumphant realisation of this ambitious project.
The musical opens before curtain-up on an off-Broadway try-out of The Shrew, a musical version of Shakespeare’s original. Theatre veteran Fred Graham (Quirijn de Lang) is starring as Petruchio alongside Hollywood star Lilli Vanessi (Jeni Bern) as Katherine, who also happens to be his ex-wife. Joining them are Broadway hoofers Lois Lane (Tiffany Graves) as Bianca and Bill Calhoun (Ashley Day) as Lucentio, whose relationship is on the rocks due to Bill’s gambling addiction. Set over the course of a single evening, Kiss Me, Kate charts the unpredictability of life in showbusinessas the will they-won’t they love-plot plays out onstage in The Shrew and backstage between Fred and Lilli.
The musical does well to escape from its misogynistic roots. While Petruchio’s taming of Katherine in The Shrew is paralleled backstage in Fred’s aggravation of Lilli, there is a sense of equality to the Fred/Lilli relationship that is absent in the Petruchio/Katherine relationship: whereas Fred and Lilli give as good as they get (and don’t appear to want it any other way), Petruchio takes an unpleasant delight in tormenting, degrading and assaulting his new wife into submission in The Shrew. Opera North handles the sexism well, although a scene where Fred, breaking character, spanks Lilli onstage during the performance of The Shrew is both bizarre and poorly choreographed.
One star in this production is the Opera North orchestra, conducted by David Charles Abell. From the overture until the finale, the musicians play with a glorious energy that elevates Porter’s rousing score. The singing is exceptional, particularly from de Lang as the suave Fred Graham, Bern as the headstrong Lilli Vanessi, Graves as the excitable Lois Lane, and Katie Kerr as Lilli’s long-suffering dresser, Hattie. The stand-out performances, however, come from Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin as two gangsters chasing up Bill’s gambling debts. Director Jo Davies is to be commended here for subtly developing the comedic elements of these characters: Shovelton and Savournin’s rendition of Brush Up Your Shakespeare is a highlight of the evening. Acting performances are uniformly strong, and the dancing, though infrequent, is well-executed, particularly by Day as the unscrupulous Bill Calhoun, and Wayne Robinson, who leads the stunning Act Two opener Too Darn Hot.
One of the merits of this production is its attention to detail. This is seen particularly in Will Tuckett’s choreography, where the intentional awkwardness of the dancing within The Shrew enhances the slapdash charm of the stereotypically ropey “opening night” performance. Other instances, such as “off-cue” sound effects and “missed entrances”, are delightful comedic touches that once again demonstrate Davies’ skill as a director. Colin Richmond’s set and costumes are remarkably extravagant for a touring production, and Ben Cracknell’s lighting is effective in creating a contrast between the onstage and backstage worlds.
If Kiss Me, Kate was merely a musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, then modern sensibilities might have seen it fade into obscurity. But Cole Porter’s musical is sharp, fast-paced and succeeds in sidestepping much of the sexism of its source material. Opera North’s triumphant production showcases Jo Davies as one of the UK’s most versatile and skilled directors, and the occasional predictability of the plot is overshadowed by the excellent performances, elaborate designs, and glorious orchestrations.
Runs until 21 October 2015 and on tour | Image: Alastair Muir