It’s quite a long evening, nearly three hours, but the stateliness suits the show’s construction and also the deliberation with which Fred Graham (Alex Bourne) and his company of actors are preparing a try-out performance of a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew one hot summer afternoon in Baltimore.
Ironically, the one really frenzied number, “Too Darn Hot,” which opens the second act, suggests the opposite of the lassitude overtaking the backstage effort; and it’s executed with dazzling ensemble brilliance in Stephen Mear’s choreography, led by the irrepressible Jason Pennycooke as Fred’s crackerjack dresser.
Aside from these ten electrifying minutes, Cole Porter’s music and lyrics are carefully organised questions, some based on Shakespeare’s own text (“Where is the Life That Late I Led?”), some not (“Think you a little din can daunt my ears?”), others expressing the rift in the relationship between Fred and his co-star and ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi (Hannah Waddingham).
These two, famously based on the husband and wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, are given terrific star profile by Bourne and Waddingham, the first every bit as dashing and handsome as Howard Keel in the movie, the second a beautiful Valkyrie with the lungs of an operatic diva and the pout of a monumental minx.
Nunn and his designer, Robert Jones, have slung a false proscenium on a diagonal across the stage, and the action moves effortlessly around it; the costuming and grouping creates a series of colourful Renaissance tableaux, while musical director Gareth Valentine and his band provide a perfect, and well-balanced, orchestral back-cloth.
A couple of references to debts incurred in a floating crap game explain the lurking presence of a couple of small-time gangsters, and David Burt and Clive Rowe – the beg-pardon and belch of stand-up comedy -- convert their lack of lines into a running gag of frustration that erupts in the vaudeville joy of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
Adam Garcia and Holly Dale Spencer are superb as the second couple, Bill Calhoun and Lois Lane. Lois explains her passing flirtation with a military chief and war veteran (Mark Heenehan as the Colonel Petraeus of an earlier conflict) in the couple’s delightful duet, “Always True To You In My Fashion.”
Suitably enough, this is soon followed by a military two-step, then a thunderous tap number that obliterates any residual worries about the battle of the sexes being loaded in any one direction. I couldn’t think of a nicer Christmas present than to be taken to see this all over again, and the greatest compliment is to say that it almost matches my memories of Michael Blakemore’s great revival over a decade ago.