Kiss Me Kate is one of the masterpieces of musical theatre. It offers a host of glorious songs with some dazzling rhymes and a witty script, drawing parallels between a warring pair of actors and the battling duo of Petruchio and Katharine in Taming of the Shrew. Throw in director Trevor Nunn, a veteran of Shakespeare and musicals and we should be in for something special.
It’s a pity therefore that this potential is not realised. That’s not to say that it’s not good, it is - and excellent in places - but the production never really catches fire in the way that it should. One of the main problems is the interplay between Taming of the Shrew (the play) and the action backstage: the two should be very different, yet similar, but the division between the two is blurred. For example, it seems strange to have Petruchio enter after that long speech describing his bizarre attire only to see him wearing the same costume as before – it’s almost as if the show is an afterthought.
The decision by Lilli to return to the show also comes out of nowhere. There’s no hint of regret as she leaves with the General or any longing for Fred – the film version handled this much better – making her re-appearance fully understandable. And the comedy is seriously underplayed: it’s almost as if the jokes are deemed irrelevant.
But some of the performances redeem these issues. There’s an outstanding Lilli from Hannah Waddingham. She sings superbly, moving seamlessly from light operetta to ballads: Her "I Hate Men" is sung with real venom and she expertly handles the contrast between Lilli and Katharine. As Fred, Alex Bourne also sings superbly, relishing the wordplay in "The Life that I Led", but there’s not enough contrast between the actor and Petruchio.
There’s a terrific double act from David Burt and the lugubrious Clive Rowe as the gangsters. "It’s Too Darn Hot" is probably the highlight of the show and features some excellent ensemble work led by Jason Pennycooke, superbly choreographed by Stephen Mear.
There’s nothing much wrong with this production. The songs, of course, are peerless, it’s slickly handled, there’s some great singing and dancing but it doesn’t possess the emotional pull that previous Chichester musicals have. Perhaps the quality of the company has set too expectations too high – it’s a problem that countless theatres would love to have and, at most of them, this would be a standout show. But it could have been better.