Kiss Me Kate, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
***** (5 stars)
When I lived in Nottingham Opera North came three times a year bringing opera of superb quality: they excelled in bringing searing productions of Janacek [in English] and produced an unsurpassable Britten Gloriana. They have brought to Edinburgh their smash hit from last season – and I can see why it received the rave reviews quoted on the posters: – this show really is unmissable!
It struck me that Kiss Me, Kate is akin to Hamlet: the latter is “full of quotations”, while Kate’s first act contains a mouth-watering and toe-tapping succession of famous numbers. It helps to have a pretty good script written by one William Shakespeare: the Taming of the Shrew [memorably brought to the screen by Taylor and Burton] pits the unpleasantly shrewish Katharina against the cunning but ultimately irresistible Petruchio who Comes to wive it wealthily in Padua. He undertakes to tame and wed Kate so that his friend Lucentio can marry Bianca. Interwoven with the on-stage battle of the sexes is the story of the two principals Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi who, previously married and acrimoniously divorced, are cast opposite each other in a musical version of the Shrew. To complicate things, Fred has an eye to Lois Lane who plays Bianca – an ingénue with a night club background: she is loved by Bill Calhoun, who plays Lucentio, while Lilli has an elderly, wealthy admirer whom she keeps threatening to marry. Bill can’t resist gambling: Lois asks him Why can’t you behave? – but the show-stopping Always true to you, darling, in my fashion shows she herself is no angel! Add into the mix two hoods come to ensure Fred Graham pays the IOU for ten Gs which Bill Calhoun signed with Fred’s name, and the plot thickens by the minute.
The four main characters are all outstanding. Alan Burkitt’s Lucentio is a mean dancer, both ballet and tap, while Zoë Rainey plays a brilliant blonde airhead, determined to take every opportunity offered her by a seemingly endless supply of suppliant men: Stephanie Corley [a regular with Scottish Opera, most recently seen in Jonathan Dove’s Flight] is brilliant as the wronged [I hate men] but still secretly loving ex-wife, while Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang [a regular with Opera North whom I hope to see returning to Scottish Opera very soon] is outstanding as the ebullient Petruchio whose character seemingly mirrors that of the actor playing him. He has a fabulous voice – he could sing under my window any day and I’d be hurtling downstairs before he finished the first verse…
Opera North’s chorus have always been one of their strengths, and here they continue to live up to their reputation as a group of individuals who worked together brilliantly and took their brief turns in the spotlight with gusto. Another op’nin, another show is a magnificent display of the cast’s talents – not just stirring singing, but a fabulous display of dancing full of energy and infectious enthusiasm. So many little sparkling moments – the little commedia del’arte section with the puppet theatre; the times when something’s going wrong in the show and someone has to improvise, or the chorus are urged on stage to fill embarrassing pauses.
I loved Aiesha Pease and Stephane Anelli’s Hattie and Paul [the two stars’ dressers], who in turn led each act’s opening ensemble number – Hattie with Another op’nin and Paul the blistering Too darn hot – with fabulous voices and nifty feet. The show was completely stolen by the two gunmen, Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin, both stalwarts of Opera North whom I’d love to see with Scottish Opera, who did a magnificent job of trying and completely failing to be inconspicuous in their attempts to blend in with the Elizabethans. They brought the house down with Brush up your Shakespeare, which is one of my favourite numbers of all time – incomparably witty, and full of delightfully excruciating rhymes.
Their song, complete with several encores, gave time for the set’s transformation into a magical Elizabethan wedding-feast to celebrate Bianca and Lucentio’s nuptials. Petruchio sat sombrely, knowing that Lilli Vanessi has walked out on him, and his Kate isn’t going to appear on stage – only to be confounded when she appears and delivers her speech of submission, reproaching the froward women who express their strong disapproval of all she says. Their reuniting confirms what we’ve known all along from the song that each sings separately – Strange, dear, but true dear … I’m yours till I die, so in love with you am I
The sets change smoothly from backstage and dressing rooms to front stage – with the wonderful Musée Cluny unicorn tapestries as backdrops to the Shakespeare, to my personal delight – and the cast transition equally brilliantly from harassed backstage characters to enthusiastic citizens of Padua, eagerly watching the latest development in the saga of Messer Hortensio’s two daughters. The orchestra of Opera North under their conductor James Holmes are, as ever, superb and the show a delight from start to finish. The curtain calls included brief reprises of some of the most heart-warmingly memorable numbers and the audience went out gaily into the still warm and light Edinburgh evening, carrying the music with them to cheer them on their way.
Opera North presents Kiss Me Kate, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh runs until 7th July for tickets go to: http://www.capitaltheatres.com/kissmekate