'Another Op'nin, Another show'.... a suitable lead-in for a review you might think, but that phrase also happens to be the opening line of this musical which features music and lyrics by Cole Porter and won a 1949 Tony Award. 'Kiss Me Kate' certainly is a musical with considerable credentials, which are augmented by the fact that it is directed by Trevor Nunn, who has a string of musical credits to his name, including 'Porgy and Bess', 'A Little Night Music', and 'My Fair Lady' among numerous others. With that kind of pedigree, this show has much to offer.
You may want to 'brush up on your Shakespeare' if you are unfamiliar with 'The Taming of the Shrew' because 'Kiss Me Kate' is based on it. Essentially 'The Shrew' is about a woman called Katharina who terrifies men because of her abrasive personality, and so she cannot find a husband. However, a brave and determined suitor called Petruchio turns up and takes on the unenviable task of 'taming' her. The plot for 'Kiss Me Kate' focuses on a theatre in Baltimore, USA, where a musical version of 'The Taming of the Shrew' is being produced and directed by Fred Graham (Alex Bourne) who is also tackling the role of Petruchio. Fred is starring opposite his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (played by Hannah Waddingham). Lilli still seems to be in love with Fred, but he has designs on Lois Lane who already has a boyfriend called Bill. In his spare time (or any time?), Bill is a devoted gambler who frequently loses and ends up having to give IOUs to unscrupulous gangster types. He has just given an IOU for $10,000 using Fred Graham's name. It is not long before Fred is confronted by two henchmen who are out to get their boss's money.
The main impression one gets from Trevor Nunn's production is one of thoroughgoing professionalism, as might be expected from a director with this level of experience and creative ability. Everything about it spells quality. The costumes are sumptuous, the choreography is vibrant and imaginative and the orchestra (under the excellent direction of Gareth Valentine) is in commendably fine form. It really is hard to find much to quibble about. However, I found both opening numbers in each act rather long and stretched. Impressive though the numbers are ('Another Op'nin, Another Show' in act 1 and 'Too Darn Hot' in act 2) it seemed as if the cast were challenging the audience to some kind of endurance test. Similarly, the duet 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' between the two gangsters also seemed rather long with two encores.
Hannah Waddingham as Lilli Vanessi appears at the start of the show looking like Cruella De Vil, the heartless antagonist from '101 Dalmatians'. Sporting dark glasses and a white fox fur, she launches bitchy comments at dizzy blonde Lois Lane (Holly Dale Spencer) who seems to be having an affair with her ex-husband, and storms off the stage while the curtain calls are being rehearsed. Later in her dressing room, Ms Waddingham's Lilli seems rather more gentle, mild-mannered and good-natured, which seemed to me to be quite a gear change from what we had seen early on. That aside, Ms Waddingham has a rich and powerful singing voice which more than does justice to Cole Porter's melodic songs. Alex Bourne also has a very impressive voice, and indeed the singing throughout the company is pretty-well top-notch. And Adam Garcia and Holly Dale Spencer feature in a classy and dynamic tap number which will be well-received by those who have a penchant for that style of dance.
Sam and Bella Spewack's book won't exactly have many people rolling in the aisles - remember, this is 1940s humour which is rather tame and obvious at best – even if Trevor Nunn makes the most of it where he can. Nevertheless, 'Kiss Me Kate' is very polished, even if it is not exactly profound, and should have plenty to offer to those who enjoy musicals.
"A lengthy but slick show with high production values."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Though it is the effervescent wit of Cole Porter’s songs, with their insolently ingenious double and triple rhymes and unforgettable melodies, that are the star attraction, Sam and Bella Spewack’s book crackles with comic energy and great one-liners, while also finding moments of tenderness and hurt amid the dizzy joie-de-vire...Frankly, nights at the theatre don’t often come more enjoyable than this."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"This talent-packed production has all the right ingredients – but falls short of excellence."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times