Cole Porter's 1948 backstage musical take on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew was perhaps his most successful stage musical, thanks to the brilliantly witty book by husband and wife team Bella and Sam Spewack, which inspired one of his finest scores, full of memorable numbers ranging from high comedy to haunting ballads. In the Spewack's play within a play, Broadway star director/performer Fred Graham is in the throes of rehearsing his musical version of Shakespeare's comedy – a showcase for himself and his movie-star ex-wife Lilli Vanessi. But life mirrors art as the warring couple quarrel over his roving eye, which has been caught by ingénue Lois Lane playing a flirty Bianca opposite her own squeeze – wide boy and inveterate gambler Bill Calhoun, who has been cast as Bianca's ardent suitor Lucentio. It's all inspired by the real-life back-stage battles of Broadway megastars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne while famously starring as Petruchio and Kate.
From the moment artistic director Paul Hart's exciting young company of multi-talented actor/musicians spill onto the Watermill's tiny stage, tuning their instruments to blast out Tom Attwood's big brassy arrangements and dancing up a storm, thanks to Oti Mabuse's exhilarating, sexy choreography, they energise the space they share with the audience, taking them backstage on opening night. Frankie Bradshaw's simple back wall set needs no more than an illuminated sign and 'his and hers' dressing-room tables to conjure that 'theater' world in Baltimore City.
David Ricardo-Pearce's Fred has instant charisma and authority as he rallies his troupe to rehearse those vital curtain calls, though that authority is deliciously undermined from the get go by Rebecca Trehearn's superbly abrasive, razor-sharp Lilli. She plays the wronged ex-wife to the hilt, especially when she discovers he is still playing the field despite his ardent overtures to reignite their relationship. She relishes playing Fred off against her new millionaire suitor from Washington's elite, at first cleverly squeezing all the fun out of a phone call where we only get to hear her side. Trehearn is moving too as she conveys equal parts of exasperation with and yearning for the errant Fred.
Meanwhile Kimmy Edwards' sexy, irrepressible Lois has her own problems with inveterate gambler Bill – a smouldering Jay Perry – whose massive gambling debts owed to a ruthless gangster threaten not just their future, but the whole production when Bill signs an IOU with Fred's name. Cue the arrival of a pair of heavies, whose comically sinister skills are cleverly commandeered by Fred to become Lilli's minders, lest she make good her threat to quit the show forthwith for her dull intended.
All this of course is played out backstage while the company perform Porter's wonderfully funny musical version of Shakespeare's play 'onstage', against Bradshaw's cleverly flimsy backdrop of Renaissance Padua. Her exuberant costumes are part pastiche, part period, setting off that high energy dance, from "We Open in Venice", the 'opening chorus' featuring the travelling players performing what is actually "the show within the show within the show" right through to the finale that brings all these plotlines together.
Meanwhile, that Baltimore setting is suddenly topical, thanks to President Trump's extraordinary tweet labelling it "rat-infested". And Hart's inspired production sets the action in 1946 to reference an earlier racial controversy when the city hit the headlines in 1946. Playing the second half opener "It's Too Darn Hot" as part of a real-life demo against racial segregation in Baltimore's Grand Opera House makes this number urgent as well as sultry, led by André Fabien Francis' thrilling Paul. He is Fred's assistant, just as Chioma Uma's exciting, multi-talented Hattie is Lilli's dresser. Velvet-voiced Uma is a glorious dancer and equally at home on violin, piano, accordion and mandolin.
Of course, Sheldon Greenland and Robert Jackson's Gangsters deservedly stop the show with "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", earning all their encores. But it's invidious to single out anyone in an ensemble that gives its all to delight an audience that is up for a summer show that really is hot.