Opera North’s touring production of Cole Porter’s musical within a musical arrives in London for what is something of a homecoming; the Coliseum was where it received its UK premiere in 1951 and also staged a revival in 1970.
If you were there then, you got pretty much what you get with this exuberant and lavish production. Director Jo Davies has wisely decided not to mess much with Bella and Samuel Spewack’s book, and not at all with Porter’s outstanding score — a clever blend of light operetta in the “play” sequences and his infectious, jazz-infused songs for the backstage scenes, all played to the hilt here by a terrific cast backed by the superb Opera North Orchestra.
Theatrical company manager Fred Graham (Quirijn de Lang) has woven himself a tangled romantic web while staging a musical based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. As well as casting himself as Petruchio opposite his ex-wife Lilli (Stephanie Corley) as Kate, he’s in pursuit of actress Lois Lane (Zoe Rainey), the love of fellow company member Bill Calhoun (Alan Burkitt).
Throw in a couple of debt-collecting gangsters after Calhoun signs a gambling IOU in Graham’s name and you have all the ingredients for a knockabout farce. The backstage antics spill over into the on-stage performance, offering plenty of scope for meta laughs from missed cues and mangled lines.
It’s a score that really lifts the spirits and the ensemble numbers are the highlight. The classic “Another Op’nin, Another Show” and steamy second act opener “Too Darn Hot” led by Stephane Anelli show the way musical theatre should be done: terrific ensemble vocals coupled with seamless and pulsating choreography, courtesy of Will Tuckett.
There are a couple of smaller scenes where things go a bit flat and the huge Coliseum stage threatens to swallow the action, but not with Zoe Rainey’s solo on the delicious “Always True to My Fashion” and Burkitt’s big tap number “Bianca”.
This is one of Porter’s very best scores: witty, bawdy and yet at the same time sophisticated. The best is saved for almost last, however, with Joseph Shovelton and John Savourin as the two gangsters savouring every moment of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, surely one the cleverest pieces of lyric writing you’ll find.
Opera North’s Kiss Me, Kate breaks no barriers at all and it’s all the better for it. A real treat.
Kiss Me, Kate is at the London Coliseum until 30 June
Photography by Tristram Kenton