Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 29 September 2016
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack
Critical edition by David Charles Abell and Seann Alderking
Welsh National Opera
Conductor James Holmes
Director Jo Davies
As the orchestra struck up the overture on the opening night of Kiss Me, Kate in Cardiff, there was a tangible frisson of expectation in the air around the audience. The first taste of the style of this production came straight away as a member of the cast broke through the curtains declaring to his director, spotlighted in the auditorium, that he had a toothache. No confusion, this was clearly the director of the ‘play within the play’, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, but an indication that we could expect embellishments.
Indeed there were plenty. Not that the opening number ‘Another Op’nin’, another Show’ needed any additional business, for the frantic atmosphere of an opening night is writ large in Col Porter’s toe-tapping music and clever lyrics:
“Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse,
Three weeks and it couldn’t be worse,
One week, will it ever be right?
Then out o’ the hat, it’s that big first night!”
Landi Oshinowo as the ‘Shrew dresser Hatti, opened up this number (and subsequent ensemble numbers too) with great verve. If the stage seemed crowded that was not an issue at this point; the action was taking place back-stage so it was realistic. As the show proceeded though, the set did sometimes feel cluttered and I would have liked a clearer separation between the supposed amateur production of the ‘Shrew and the off-stage drama between its players as well as a little less business and ‘stuff’ – fewer flowers for example and drop the donkey, cute as it might be!
I don’t think Bella and Samuel Spewack’s book throws any fresh light on the the ‘Shrew, and WNO Artistic Director David Pountney’s choice of Kiss Me, Kate for his Shakespeare400 season seems to be less about the Bard than about getting bums on seats. Is my choice of that phrase an unfortunate or apt one for this production? You can decide for yourself – in more ways than one – if you see the show. Just be aware that the dramatic leaning of this production is heavily towards farce. Jeni Bern as Lilli/Kate nonetheless showed a real fiery spirit in ‘I Hate Men’, and her attack on the hapless lutenist in the scene was nicely achieved.
There were a number of good characterisations, and two utterly brilliant ones from John Shovelton and John Savournin as the two gunmen who are central to the plot. Their comic timing was perfect. In the finale of Act One, while Jeni Bern and Quirijin de Lang as Fred/Petruchio were singing their hearts out along with the whole company, I could not take my eyes off the gunmen, who were drawn into the ‘Shrew’s chorus and, with their just-too-late gestures, stole the scene even more, I suspect, than they were meant to do.
In a master stroke, director Jo Davies opens Act Two with a Groundhog Day-style reprise of the end of the final scene of Act One, which leads seamlessly into the barnstorming ensemble number ‘Too Darn Hot’ in which Cole Porter’s music and the whole company – singers, dancers and the orchestra of WNO – triumphed.
A smaller-scale but equal triumph was the two gunmen’s rendition of ‘Brush Up your Shakespeare’, which deservedly received the biggest cheers of the evening. In front of the curtains, so with no set and also with no props, John Shovelton and John Savournin made this number simply wonderful.
Overall though I found this production over-fussy and over-long. To my mind it would have benefited from a few judicious cuts in the spoken scenes. It is Cole Porter’s music which is the real star of Kiss me, Kate and there were times when I felt it was almost submerged by the staging, such as in ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ which Bianca sings with her suitors. As Lois/Bianca, Amelia Adams-Pearce was assigned a Betty Boop-style character which worked well enough for air-headed Lois but less so for Bianca. I also felt that the beautiful song ‘So in Love’ was curiously under-powered, both when first sung by Lilli and later reprised by Fred. Strange, that such a song could feel lost on the stage. Perhaps the problem lies with the way the show was constructed, with Cole Porter writing songs to drop into the book. So maybe his solo songs will always work best when taken out and sung in isolation.
Overall the playing, singing and dancing from the whole company was excellent. This being a co-production with Opera North (first aired by them in 2015) many in the company, as well as the director and others in the creative team, have come on from that and are making their welcome debut with WNO. Particularly notable, both as singer and dancer, was Alan Burkitt as Bill/Lucentio, and Quirijin de Lang is a fine-voiced baritone from whom we deserve to hear more in Wales.
While in many respects I would have preferred a production in which the music took precedence over the book, I did perversely love a couple of completely irrelevant additions from David Charles Abell’s re-edit of the original 1948 Broadway production – Alan Burkitt’s stunning tap-dancing and a delightful little commedia dell’arte entr’acte performed by the dancers. More centrally, ‘Too Darn Hot’ was made appropriately hotter musically by saxophone additions to the orchestration.
In many productions of The Taming of the Shrew the feisty Kate accepts subservience to Petruchio, although now and again a production comes along which turns that on its head. One such was the all-female production at The Globe on London’s South Bank in 2003, of which there is a production photo in this WNO programme. No such turn-around is achieved in this Kiss Me, Kate, but there is a hint of it at the end. Perhaps there can be social comment in farce after all!
All photos credit: Richard Hubert Smith