‘A show of two halves’: KISS ME, KATE – West End ★★★

In International, London theatre, Musicals, Opinion, Reviews, Touring by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

London Coliseum – until 30 June 2018

With the World Cup tournament currently in play, football parlance seems appropriate in describing Opera North’s Kiss Me, Kate, arriving this week for a short stay at London’s Coliseum as a show with two halves. After a wonderful opening with ‘Another Op’nin, Another Show’, the first half slumps into a disappointing tedium that is not corrected until the curtain rises after half-time, heralding a well delivered and lively second act whirl through some songbook treats.

Kiss Me, Kate is a curious show at the best of times, a meta-musical that weaves in and out of a touring company’s visit to Baltimore to perform (the musical of) The Taming Of The Shrew. This much-acclaimed revival (of a piece often reviled for both its and Shakespeare’s misogyny) first opened in Leeds some three years ago, yet seeing it now, when the world’s sexual politics are still adjusting to a long overdue post-Weinstein correction, it appears at times more out-of-step and potentially offensive than ever.

For sure, some of Cole Porter’s compositions deserve their place in the pantheon – but elsewhere, and particularly when Porter sets Shakespeare’s narrative to music, one is reminded more perhaps of Max Bialystock’s ‘Funny Boy’ than of Broadway’s Golden Age. The plot also references a floating crap game and two comic hoodlums – but compared to the sparkle of Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, the villainous capers here are enfeebled.

Much of the show’s song and dance is magnificent, largely due to Will Tuckett’s delicious choreography and Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt who deliver the Lois Lane/Bianca and Bill Calhoun/Lucentio roles perfectly. Both actors are performers at the top of their game, bringing wit, flair and inspirational interpretation to their big numbers, Rainey in ‘Always True To You In My Fashion’, and Burkitt especially in his big number ‘Bianca’. Their performances alone justify a ticket and ‘Too Darn Hot’ is too darn good too!

Headlining the show’s cast are the operatic talents of Stephanie Corley as Lilli Vanessi / Kate and Quirijn de Lang assuming the Fred Graham / Petruchio responsibilities. Powerful in her un mic’d delivery, Corley’s vocals are masterful but yet there is something strangely Clinton-esque in her work that never finds her convincing in either role. de Lang too lacks electricity in a casting that yet again demonstrates how it is only a very rare opera singer that can make the transition from their world of vocal excellence to the very different challenge of musical theatre, and of being able to act through song. Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin make a fine job of the gunmen – but the Vaudevillian pastiche of their Brush Up Your Shakespeare only highlights the groan-inducing corniness of the song’s original construction. Porter’s rhyming of Shakespeare’s titles may once have dissolved American audiences into fits of laughter – today, the gags seem desperately dated.
There is a hint too of this show, that has been constructed for the road, being slightly lost in the Coliseum’s cavernous space. Colin Richmond and Ben Cracknell, both of whose set design and lighting work is usually top notch, fail to fill the vast stage as flapping flats, rickety staircases and sloppy lighting plots prove to be minor distractions.
Under James Holmes’ baton and David Charles Abell’s restorative orchestrations the Opera North orchestra make delicious work of the score. Porter aficionados will appreciate the care that has been lavished on the melodies.

Runs until 30th June, then continues on tour

Jonathan Baz on Twitter
Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends far beyond the capital to include regional theatre as well as occasional forays into Europe and the USA. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan also sits on the judging panel of London's Off West End Awards ("the Offies") and has published numerous interviews and features with leading figures in the film and theatre world. Away from the arts, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with a number of clients in the entertainment industries. He blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com and tweets at @MrJonathanBaz.
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Jonathan Baz on Twitter
Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends far beyond the capital to include regional theatre as well as occasional forays into Europe and the USA. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan also sits on the judging panel of London's Off West End Awards ("the Offies") and has published numerous interviews and features with leading figures in the film and theatre world. Away from the arts, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with a number of clients in the entertainment industries. He blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com and tweets at @MrJonathanBaz.