In the days when a show’s success was judged by the number of hit tunes, Cole Porter’s 1934 musical Anything Goes numbered five; however fourteen years later his music sounded uninspired and the hits had dried up. Porter needed a boost and when Bella Spewack approached him with an idea for adapting Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, history has shown that was the boost he required. Porter was not immediately convinced, but his relationship with Spewack, who he had worked with on Leave it to Me! (1938), was good and he was open for a new stimulus.
Mindful of the failure, following fantastic notices, that Jubilee had received in 1935, Porter was reluctant to try anything that might alienate audiences, noting in an interview that “Sophisticated allusions are good for about six weeks, more fun, but only for myself and about eighteen other people. Polished, urbane and adult playwriting in the musical field is strictly a creative luxury.” Kiss me, Kate could easily have been another Anything Goes with star performers and an exquisite score had Rodgers & Hammerstein’s new genre of musical-play developed through Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945) not shown Porter another, more dramatic way to write a musical.
From the first notes of the Overture to the Finale two-and-a-half hours later, this Opera North production bristles and fizzes, sensitively amplified to keep balance in check with every word clear. Edward Goggin takes Jo Davies’s 2015 concept, gives it a polish and makes it sparkle as something new.
Will Tuckett’s perfect choreography – a busy stage when needed (the hubbub of ‘Another Op’nin, Another Show’); sparse and reflective at times (Lili’s ‘So in Love’) adds to but never overshadows Robert Russell Bennett’s masterful orchestration of Porter’s score. David Charles Abell’s edition started life in a lawyer’s office in midtown Manhattan, home of the Cole Porter Trust where ink manuscripts of the original scoring were found. Informative programme notes tell how the US Library of Congress yielded important documents in Porter’s hand as did Spewack’s archive – this is probably as close to an authentic performance as you might ever encounter.
Porter’s score demands highly trained, almost operatic, voices for the parts of Fred Graham / Petruchio and Lili Vanessi / Kate (the original parts were played by Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison). These roles are well-taken by Quirijn de Lang (reprising his 2015 portrayal) and Stephanie Corley, more than equal to the coloratura demands; the effortless comedy in ‘I Hate Men’ juxtaposed with ‘So in Love’ demonstrates her versatility. Using musical rather than opera singers for the second couple – Lois Lane / Bianca and Bill Calhoun / Lucentio – is inspired. The comedic shenanigans of the latter pair perfectly contrast the seriousness of the other two. Lois’s promise to “always be true to you darling” is a gem truly deserving of the two written encores that Porter included – he knew the songs that were going to be hits. Not to be outdone, Alan Burkitt’s tap-routine in ‘Bianca’ is polished and poised.
While the principals will always grab the attention, here the remaining cast and staging is just as engaging. Slick scene-changes move the action cleverly on, demarking the front and back areas through the use of wooden flies that are rotated as necessary. Aiesha Pease (Hattie) has the vocal soul of Aretha Franklin and she’s light on her feet too – one to watch; along with Stephane Anelli (Paul) who is, according to my lady companion, pleasing to the eye as he strips off in ‘Too darn hot’. Reprising their 2015 performance as the bumbling gangsters, Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin add a touch of humour to proceedings, though they could have been a little more menacing. Their duet ‘Brush up your Shakespeare’ is carried off with aplomb – delightful, so too this engaging and well-crafted staging.
- From June 20-30 this production transfers to the London Coliseum