Review: Kiss Me, Kate (Sheffield Crucible)
Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack's riff on Shakespeare is revived in Sheffield by director Paul Foster
It is evident that director Paul Foster and his team believe in Kiss Me, Kate as one of the great classic musicals. And it is, possibly the greatest of them all. Cole Porter's miraculous score – 17 songs with barely a dud – goes from the delicious operetta pastiche of "Wunderbar" to the drollest tribute to the pulling power of literary genius, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", via songs that have become cabaret standards ("Too Darn Hot", "Always True to You in My Fashion"), wicked point songs ("I Hate Men"), Shakespeare-based tongue-twisters ("I've Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua") and the wonderfully unexpected romantic melody of "So in Love". And that's without mentioning that "Another Op'nin'" is one of those songs that pins the entertainment business perfectly and "Why Can't You Behave?" brilliantly combines wistfulness and cynicism with an elusive melody.
If Porter's lyrics and music summarise his genius in less than three hours, Sam and Bella Spewack's book manages a remarkable feat, too, something they could not have foreseen in 1948: they make The Taming of the Shrew acceptable in the 21st century. Shakespeare's comedy deals with Petruchio's successful "taming" of Katharine (a pretty fierce individual, it must be admitted), by such unorthodox means as starving her and beating her so that he can make his fortune.
The setting of the musical within the context of a tour opening in Baltimore, with Fred and Lilli, one year divorced and playing Petruchio and Katharine, warring backstage, removes most of the offence, though Porter's use of Shakespeare's words on "I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple" (Kate's final surrender) still causes a sharp intake of breath – at the Crucible a simple gesture relating it all to their private life helps to skate over this.
Porter's score builds bridges between different styles of music and Yorkshire recently had the delight of hearing the original full orchestrations in Opera North's production. However, the songs come up fresh as paint in Chris Egan's orchestrations for 10-piece band under James McKeon. If the accompaniment is sometimes on the strident side, there are compensations, such as the lovely use of the bass clarinet on songs such as "I Hate Men".
Casting has been based on strong singers and Edward Baker-Duly (Fred/Petruchio) and Rebecca Lock (Lilli/Katharine) both relish the operetta-ish flourishes. He convincingly segues from backstage rat to onstage charmer with the raising of an eyebrow and she rages with all the self-regarding fractured dignity of a true grande dame of the stage.
Traditionally, in such shows, the second couple have all the fun – and Amy Ellen Richardson (Lois, Fred's latest inamorata, playing Bianca) and Dex Lee (Bill, her wayward boyfriend, aka Lucentio) are both excellent. She proves a natural comedian and gets full value from her two great songs, he dances up a storm on his showpiece, "Bianca". Everybody's favourite gangsters (Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague) take their time in finding the right dead-pan for the parts, but manage brilliantly to extend that wonderful front-curtain routine, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", onwards and upwards across the vast Crucible stage and into the band balcony. In a fine ensemble John Conroy delivers the best Harry Trevor I have seen – Harry, the ageing professional, playing Baptista and tasked with keeping things going amid all the mayhem.
With Janet Bird's clever designs creating open spaces for Matt Flint's choreography to frolic without restraint, it should have been an outstanding production. It isn't, it's merely very good. It's a question of time and pace. It comes in at all but three hours (interval included) and the unwillingness to let go of production numbers stretches them beyond their natural length, though usually with some pretty spectacular dancing. Then the inclusion of "From this Moment On" is not a good idea. A great song from another Porter musical, it was included in an earlierKiss Me, Kate revival, but doesn't add much at a time when the plot needs speeding up. If it had been there at that try-out in Baltimore, Cole Porter would have cut it without a pang.