Opera Reviews
16 April 2021
Untitled Document

A fun filled Kiss Me Kate

by Catriona Graham
Porter: Kiss Me Kate
Opera North
July 2018

The audience is fanning itself when the orchestra strikes up the overture with the unmistakable melody of ‘Too Darn Hot’. Opera North is touring Jo Davies’ production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate during the first decent heatwave in decades and Stephane Anelli (Paul) and Aiesha Pease (Hattie) defy the temperature, leading a smokin’ performance of the number in Act 2.

Is this the ultimate backstage musical? Sam and Bella Spewack’s book is based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and their experience of a production with warring husband and wife playing Kate and Petruccio. Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham are opening the play in Baltimore, but Lilli has left Fred for a Republican senator and it is not clear that she won’t leave the show before the final curtain.

As it’s opening night, there are joyous technical hitches - the time lag between something hitting the stage and the sound-effect triggering the characters’ response; the curtains closing with characters on the wrong side; lines forgotten and cues missed. Colin Richmond’s clever set and Ben Cracknell’s lighting switch from backstage and darkened wings to bright stage with Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. 

While Lilli Vanessi is a diva given to histrionics, Kate is a lady with attitude beset by a whiny, irritatingly pert and pretty kid sister who is her father’s favourite. Stephanie Corley’s voice gives plenty emotional heft to the part, not least in ‘So in love’ and leaving a question about her sincerity in ‘I hate men’.

As Fred Graham with a pencil ‘tache, Quirijn de Lang in black leather, big white shirt and Poldark hair, is a dashing Petruccio albeit running decidedly to ham. Changed into wedding doublet and hose, he sings ‘Where is the life that late I led?’ as if he were auditioning for Don Giovanni. The tiny little shrug at the end of ‘So in love’, together with his lingering at the stage door, convey the depth of his love for Lilli.

Lois Lane / Bianca is sung and danced exquisitely by Zoe Rainey, who makes the most of ‘Always true to you in my fashion’, complete with mule, which takes its own curtain call, wearing a ruff. Initially, Alan Burkitt as Bill Calhoun seems a bit tame – he’s a Broadway hoofer after all - but he certainly shows his chops in a dazzling tap dance with orchestral percussion, one of the passages re-discovered by critical editors David Charles Abell and Seann Alderking. Another is the utterly charming commedia dell’arte ballet in the middle of ‘We Open In Venice’.

Whether impeding Lilli’s attempts to leave the theatre or exhorting us to ‘Brush up your Shakespeare’, the Gunmen (Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin) steal the show.

The chorus work and dancing is slick and sassy and the Opera North orchestra very good indeed. Under conductor James Holmes, they achieve both lush indulgence and laser-cut sharpness in the schmaltzy ‘Wunderbar’. Their playing showcases the original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker, whether raunchy jazz and show-tunes or quasi-operatic, proving, were proof needed, the worth of doing this show well.

Text © Catriona Graham
Photo © Tristram Kenton
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