In choosing to restore rather than rejuvenate, Opera North has created a genuinely fascinating and faithful window into a bygone era. In doing so, however, they’ve chosen to celebrate the show as an antiquity, rather than drawing on its more timeless qualities.
Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack
Directed by Jo Davies
Quirjin De Lang, Jeni Bern and Company
Opera North, a leading UK arts organisation whose key focus and goal is to ‘actively challenge conventional perceptions of opera’ (as stated in the programme), return to Leeds Grand this Autumn to present their latest season of work, with this new production of Kiss Me, Kate being the first in a diverse line-up.
Kiss Me, Kate tells the story of Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, two actors whose tempestuous love lives take centre stage as they perform in a new musical version of The Taming of the Shrew in 1940s Baltimore. Almost fabricated as a play within a play, Kiss Me, Kate takes a different tack to the musical theatre norm and allows the audience to see both the on stage and off stage dramatics and hysteria of the story’s main arc.
Quirijn De Lang and Jeni Bern, the key protagonists, shine in their roles offering the audience a true abundance of wit, charm and delight as they work with an overly complex plot that takes an hour and a half to actually get to the point. Whilst there are some great comedic interludes from Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin as Gunman 1 and Gunman 2, Kiss Me, Kate struggles to sell itself as a piece of high class musical theatre.
With a running time of almost 3 hours, Kiss Me, Kate fails to pack the punch required for such a long piece of theatre, with scenes drawn out for much longer than required. At least half an hour could be trimmed and still allow a piece that could be easily grasped without becoming boring due to a lack of tension, suspense or characters one can truly care for.
Tiffany Graves and Ashley Day feel a tad miscast as the secondary characters Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun – there’s a surprising lack of chemistry between the two and apart from a wonderful, albeit small, comedic moment in Tom, Dick or Harry. Katie Kerr as Hattie seems underused with an absolutely divine voice that opens up the first act in Another Op’nin, Another Show, whilst Claire Pascoe as the Stage Manager is another ensemble member who stands out, grabbing our attention as soon as she walks on stage.
The main saving grace of this production is its music. Superbly conducted by David Charles Abell, Kiss Me, Kate harks back to Musical Theatre’s golden era. The best moments are the ensemble numbers particularly Too Darn Hot the second act opener.
The lighting and set designs for this production are ambitious considering the size of the theatre but Ben Cracknell and Colin Richmond do a remarkable job, providing stunning backdrops that draw the audience in and help sell a flawed story.
Kiss Me, Kate’s lack of purpose and confusing storyline will possibly leave many feeling a little cold and put out. For those Shakespeare aficionados however who fancy seeing something a bit different and unconventional, then it may well prove the perfect night out.
Runs until 31 October and then toursGuest reviewer: Megan Kinsey