Kiss Me, Kate
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Bella and Samuel Spewack
Opera North and Welsh National Opera
Leeds Grand Theatre
Even before the curtain goes up, there is a sense of mischief, fun, and complete, loveable self-confidence to this joyous revival of Opera North’s 2015 Kiss Me, Kate. The opening conjures the chaos and sheer adrenaline rush of getting a show ready for first night, with the stunning ensemble boisterously introduced in "Another Op’nin, Another Show".
This number sets the pace for the rest of the evening, with its cartwheeling, electrifying choreography and mastery of the dizzying range of styles Porter throws at this iconic musical. This is a relatively freshly-minted edition of the show’s orchestration, assembled through diligent archival research by David Charles Abell and Seann Alderking and given beautiful renditions by the Opera North orchestra conducted by James Holmes.
So it is that we move from the opening backstage bustle to the sumptuous (yet playful) strings of "Why Can’t You Behave", to the clever parody of "Wunderbar", Cole Porter’s romantic musical number in heavily ironic quotation marks. And that’s just the first three songs.
Will Tuckett’s choreography (here remounted by David James Hulston) is more than up to the challenge, with smooth-sliding jazz moves segueing into energetic tap and even the (rarely-performed) balletic, commedia-inflected masked interlude. Whether manoeuvring the two-dozen-strong principle cast and dancers round the stage in mind-boggling ensemble numbers, or dazzling with a ridiculously sexy solo for Stephane Anelli in second-act opener "Too Darn Hot", this is gleeful stuff.
As Bill Calhoun (and Lucentio in the play within the play), Alan Burkitt displays wonderful comic skills and timing—and (after Anelli) some of the most sizzling dance moves here on show. That he combines humour with a strutting prowess in showcase set-pieces such as "Bianca" leads to some potentially show-stealing moments. But the strength of the whole cast—and the imagination and variety of the staging—is such that, just when you think it can soar no higher, new levels of ingenuity, hilarity and technical accomplishment are reached.
Jo Davies’s direction, revived by Ed Goggin, repeatedly ups the comic ante and consistently mines both book and music for all the humour you can possibly extract, and more. Beautifully crafted sight gags abound, abetted by Colin Richmond’s simple but spectacular design.
The set, like the plot, takes us behind the scenes on a star-laden tour of The Taming of the Shrew. Life, of course, ends up imitating art, with romantic entanglements ironed out eventually. But really the whole show is nothing but an excuse for a vast range of Porter’s punning lyrics and musical motifs, a cast of ego-driven (but ultimately endearing) characters at each other’s throats, and a breathtakingly funny entertainment.
Opera North regular Quirijn De Lang returns to the role of Fred Graham (Petruchio in the play-within-the-play). His assurance in treading the line between likeability and egotism is impeccable, and he gives one of the show’s most uproarious comic turns. He is swagger personified in his cod-Shakespearean leather trousers and lothario’s long black locks, happily accepting the applause for other people’s dance numbers.
The moment when Graham realises that Lilli Vanessi (aka Kate, played by Stephane Corley) has discovered his infidelity is a masterclass, his smarm dissolving to a panicked fear for his life, as he takes refuge in the handily ensuing dance number.
Comedy is something Opera North always seems to do spectacularly well, and—speaking of masterclasses—the pairing of Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin as a little and large pair of hoodlums out to call in a gambling debt is fantastic. Both are returning Opera North performers, and Savournin has also directed for the company (last year’s similarly riotous short Trial by Jury).
Together they milk the duo for all its worth, and this production is particularly strong on the kind of ‘repeat with variation’ gags which pepper this musical. "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in the wrong hands can be tediously cheesy, but here it shines, thanks to some brilliant clowning.
I am running out of superlatives, and I have barely mentioned the women yet. Zoë Rainey delivers a comic performance to give those clowns a run for their money. As the patronised starlet Lois Lane, who plays Bianca in The Shrew, she gets some of the wittiest—certainly the cheekiest—numbers, and absolutely holds the audience in the palm of her hand. Rainey has all the required comedy chops, but also the pathos—not to mention the sheer ability to belt them out, such as at the climax of "Always True To You In My Fashion".
The same can be said of Stephanie Corley, in the central role as Lilli Vanessi (Kate). She makes this demanding and surprisingly nuanced part look effortless. She has just the required grandeur, and like all of the central foursome she moves with ease from the heartfelt to the jovial. Her spine-tingling "So In Love" gives way to the music-hall japery of "We Open In Venice" (showcasing her lovely Groucho impression, by the way), and she excels throughout.
At one point, and only with the assistance of the gun-toting gangsters, Fred gains the upper hand over Lilli. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself,” she barks at him. “Oh, enormously!” comes his grinning response—and you can really believe it. I wasn’t overly familiar with the musical before, but thanks to Opera North it has instantly become one of my most memorable, enjoyable and ecstatic evenings at the theatre. Catch it quickly in Leeds, at the London Coliseum, or the Edinburgh Festival Theatre.