Opera North’s richly satisfying revival of ‘Shakespeare’s’ sparkling backstage musical
Kiss Me Kate is credited with reviving Cole Porter’s flagging post-war career and from Opera North’s glorious revival it’s easy to see why. Sam and Bella Spewack, the Jewish power couple behind the book, had worked with Porter before and Bella insisted Porter was invited to write music and lyrics for their backstage musical. This delicious play within a play tells of Broadway star director/performer Fred Graham, who is in the throes of rehearsing his musical based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew – a showcase for himself and his movie-star ex-wife Lilli Vanessi.
Life mirrors art as they quarrel over his roving eye against a backdrop (literally) of frantic last-minute rehearsals for that imminent open night. He is coming on to ingénue Lois Lane, playing flirty Bianca to the hilt – and for real, opposite her own squeeze, wide boy and inveterate gambler Bill Calhoun, cast as Bianca’s successful suitor Lucentio. It’s inspired by the real-life back-stage battles of Broadway megastars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane, starring as Petruchio and Kate in Shakespeare’s comedy.
Director Jo Davies (and revival director Ed Goggin) open with a superb flourish – a colourful bustling snapshot of backstage life as opening night approaches. It’s the company work that impresses here, with Will Tuckett’s exhilarating choreography led by the breath-taking Stephane Anelli as Fred’s assistant, Paul (later extraordinary in Too Darn Hot); and Claire Pascoe, terrific as the harassed, yet authoritative SM, the go-to girl who sorts everyone’s angst-ridden queries, with great work too from Aiesha Pease as Hattie Lilli’s dresser. Porter’s lines: “Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse, three weeks and it couldn’t be worse” – beautifully enunciated, like everything sung and spoken here – have the ring of authenticity!
Designer Colin Richmond takes us backstage at a grand theatre with imposing staircase above dressing rooms and stage door. Dutch baritone Quirijin De Lang’s smooth-tongued Fred and Stephanie Corley’s fiery Lilli are well-matched as ill-matched ex’s with an obvious fatal attraction. They play the Spewack’s witty banter to perfection. "Do you really think I could play the shrew?" Asks Lilli. "You’d make the perfect shrew…" Fred wryly responds.
Their voices blend beautifully too as they navigate the writers’ seamless transitions from book to song as Why Can’t You Behave? follows this exchange. They enjoy Porter’s fun with pastiche too, for example recalling playing Viennese-style operetta together in Wunderbar!
It’s no wonder Fred has a roving eye for Zoë Rainey’s Lois, perfect as the gal who knows how to get what she wants from her men, a whirlwind of elegant limbs dancing up a storm in Always True to You Darling In My Fashion. You’re confident she’ll ‘tame’ Alan Burkitt’s feckless, loose-limbed Bill.
Richmond enchants with his sets for the Shrew musical, especially when he takes us inside the Minola family mansion, dominated by a gorgeous reproduction of iconic 15th-century French tapestry The Lady and the Unicorn, set off with sumptuous Renaissance-style costumes.
The Spewacks satisfyingly tight plot gets a wonderfully clear reading here. Bill foists Mr Big’s IOU for his vast gambling debts on Fred, a pair of gunmen turn up to redeem it and Fred turns it to his advantage to rescue Lilli from life with terminally boring millionaire Harrison Howell (convincing Malcolm Ridley). For the show can't go on without Lilli, so Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin’s fine double act of heavies become her minders – and showstoppers with Brush Up Your Shakespeare of course.
The whole is underpinned by David Charles Abell’s critical edition of the score, realised by Opera North’s splendid orchestra, conducted by James Holmes, and its magnificent chorus. Catch it while you can!
By Judi Herman
Photos by Tristram Kenton
Kiss Me Kate runs until Saturday 30 June. 7.30pm (Mon- Sat) 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). £10-£105. London Coliseum, WC2N 4ES. 020 7845 9300. www.operanorth.co.uk
Then running in Scotland Wednesday 4 – Saturday 7 July. 7.15pm, 2.15pm (Sat only). £15.50-£49.50. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, EH8 9FT. 013 1529 6000. www.operanorth.co.uk