Kiss Me Kate
Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome as part of national tour (ends Dec.  10)
Music and lyrics: Cole Porter

Author: Samuel and Bella Spewack
Producer: Welsh National Opera in co-production with Opera North
Director: Jo Davies
Cast includes: Claire Wild/Jeni Bern, Quirijin de Lang, Amelia Adams-Pearce, Alan Burkitt, Landi Oshinowo, Max Parker, Matthew Barrow, Jon Tsouras, Joseph Shovelton, John Savournin, Morgan Deare, David Peart, Adam Tench, Joseph Poulton, Louis Quaye, Rosie Hay, Martin Lloyd, Julian Boyce
Running time: Three hours including interval.

 

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the problematic Taming of the Shrew lends itself to tongue-in-cheek adaptations.

Already a play-within-a-play in the original version, framing Shakespeare’s account of the shrewish Kate and her borderline-abusive Petruchio with a backstage broken romance ratchets up a notch the already absurdly charged sexual tension.

Add to that, a woman director (Jo Davies) who can take risks with male-female relationship politics that a man might not dare, and the powerful harmonies of the Welsh National Opera chorus and orchestra to bind together the near anarchy onstage and the ingredients are stacked up for a compelling night of unruly fun.

Escapism was craved by the original audiences of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate just after the war in 1948.  Equally, audiences today seek to retreat from reality as they grapple with political earthquakes and economic uncertainty and Shakpespeare’s groundlings must have needed distraction from the pain of daily existence.

Cole Porter was a witty lyricist and musician rather than a dramatist.  The programme notes tell us it was his contemporary Bella Spewack, herself estranged from her co-writer husband Samuel, who persuaded him to write the score for the story of a musical touring company putting on the Taming of the Shrew whose lead couple are warring offstage as well as on.

The result was an outpouring of great songs tenuously related to the onstage drama.

To make matters worse for a conductor, the scores for musicals are notoriously in a terrible state as they tend to be cobbled together in haste for popular consumption with little thought for the performers of the future.

This particular production delivers the equivalent of a properly restored painting after an authentic score and related documents were tracked down in New York.

Finding them, allowed the correction of thousands of copying mistakes and the discovery of several musical passages unheard for half a century, including 17 bars of five-sax swing in Too Darn Hot and a virtuouso tap dance routine, both of which turn out to be show stoppers in the fullest sense.

An extended and riotous performance of Too Darn Hot and Lucentio’s (Alan Burkitt) bravura pirouetting and tap routines hardly advance the plot but they are massively enjoyable in their own right.  Tempting though it might be to say they are too long for dramatic purposes, Shakespeare, who reputably added the line exit pursued by a bear in The Winter’s Tale because the theatre company had one, would have approved of making good use of a brilliant dancer, expertly choreographed by Will Tuckett.

Lucentio’s love interest is Amelia Adams-Pearce as Lois Lane/Bianca.  Anything but the demure marriageable sister of some versions of The Shrew, she raunchily pursues any Tom, Dick or Harry, Harry, Dick or Tom.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Davies’ life-affirming production at the Birmingham Hippodrome leg of the tour was the power of Claire Wild, thrown in at the last minute to be Katharine onstage and the capricious Lilli Vanessi off-stage, because of the indisposition of Jeni Bern.

The substitution could have appeared to be one of the production’s many jokes as another caprice of Miss Vanessi were it not pulled off so superbly by Wild, who creates perfect chemistry with her lead Quirijin de Lang as Petruchio.

The vocal indignation soars, the sparks fly and the outrage is truly felt as he turns his amour upside down and spanks her bottom.  She well and truly gets him back with a recitative-style declaration that NEVER will she kiss him that bridges the interval.  Of course she ultimately relents for a rousing, feel-good happy ending to round off the Welsh National Opera’s contribution to this year’s 400th Shakespeare anniversary.

Barbara Lewis © 2016.