Douglas Mayo reviews Opera North’s production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate now playing for a limited season at the London Coliseum.
Kiss Me, Kate
20 June 2018
London Theatreland is in classic Broadway musical mode with not one but two big productions – Kiss Me Kate and The King and I, written by three of the greats Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein playing over the next two weeks at two of London’s biggest venues The Coliseum and the London Palladium.
Opera North’s Kiss Me, Kate opened last night for a strictly limited run and it’s a mixed bag indeed. This show within a show uses Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew as its core. It’s very much a book musical with some of Porter’s greatest musical theatre songs Wunderbar!, So In Love, I Hate Men, Too Darn Hot, Always True To You In My Fashion, and Brush Up Your Shakespeare amongst others peppering Bella and Sam Spewack’s marvellous book.
How marvellous it was to hear Opera North’s magnificent orchestra of over 50 under the baton of James Holmes play David Charles Abell and Sean Alderking’s sparkiling orchestrations reconstructed from Robert Russell Bennett’s originals. Gorgeously played, rich, lush, dreamy, you can’t beat the sound that this number of musicians can produce.
Jo Davies and Ed Goggin have given us a very traditional classic staging of the great musical. It all flows relatively seemlessly thanks to a minimal scenic design by Colin Richmond with large rotating sliders and a series of painted drops moving us from a front on view of the show within a show to a side on backstage view. It’s probably something that would have worked better in a smaller space but on the large, enormously wide stage of the Coliseum it get’s a bit lost at times especially with a lot of the larger scenes focused to the rear of the playing space. Richmond’s costumes are a hit and miss affair as are the wigs and hair which in some cases seem to have been done and in others forgotten completely.
Kiss Me Kate uses a weird hybrid opera/musical theatre cast too. As it’s Fred and Lilli, Quirin de Lang and Stephanie Corley are musically on the money. Corley is the perfect Shrew, her resiliance, bite and venom witteled down throughout the onstage and backstage dramas. De Lang sounds great with his lush baritone, but his Fred was “bluster lite”, it felt like the bombast needed to balance these two fiery characters wasn’t at its peak. It didn’t help that Fred’s act one costume had a look of baggy plastic waders with an equally questionable wig.
Not so the pairing of Lois Lane and Bill Calhourn (Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt). Both sang and danced as if their lives depended on it. Gorgeously sung, both of these characters burst forth from the stage in their two second act numbers Always True To You In My Fashion and Bianca where each made the huge stage their own, bringing down the house.
The shows two hapless gangsters, here played by Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin deliver thier lines with comic perfection, their Brush Up Your Shakespeare a comic delight before the show’s finale.
Two other notable performances in this production come from Aiesha Pease, whose fiesty Hatty makes the most out of her onstage moments and the remarkable Stephan Anelli, whose take on Paul seems to have channelled the spirit of Donald O’Connor, his dance and onstage presence in Too Darn Hot is nothing short of electric!
The biggest problem this production has to ovewrcome is the venue, particularly the enormous moat of an orchestra pit and the distance it creates between actor and audience. It’s not as noticeable in grand opera but throw in spoken book scenes and the cavernous nature of the venue soon become very overbearing. With Kiss Me, Kate and The King and I audiences are going to see two very different approaches to musical theatre staging, a musical theatre- opera hybrid and one that is pure musical theatre, the staging and technical approach for each is different. Where this Kate works best is when the action is front and centre, it is there and only there that the energy or cast and audience clash and this musical really come to life, when the sparks fly is is truly Wunderbar!
Until 30 June 2018