CFT Away from Home
Alex Bourne, Hannah Waddingham, David Burt, Adam Garcia and Clive Rowe
Kiss Me, Kate
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Sam and Bella Spewack
20 Nov 2012 - 2 Mar 2013
Previews 20 November 2012. Press night 3 December 2012.
Award-winning director, Trevor Nunn returns to The Old Vic to direct the dazzling, Tony award-winning, Broadway classic, Kiss Me, Kate. Featuring music and lyrics by Cole Porter, including Too Darn Hot, Brush up your Shakespeare and Another Op’nin, Another Show, this exuberant show-within-a-show throws together gun-toting gangsters, sparring actors and romantic entanglements against a backdrop of a musical production of Taming of the Shrew.
The cast includes Alex Bourne, David Burt, Adam Garcia, Clive Rowe and Hannah Waddingham, with choreography by Stephen Mear.
Tough old game, showbiz. William Shakespeare should surely have front-of-house playbill status alongside Cole Porter and writers Sam and Bella Spewack whenever the 1948 musical comedy Kiss Me, Kate is revived.
Yet the Bard never receives a sniff of a byline. That lad needs a new agent.
Kiss Me, Kate is the one which builds a cheerfully farcical plot round Shakespeare’s Taming Of The Shrew, inserting Hollywood gags and showstoppers such as I Hate Men and Too Darn Hot.
This Sir Trevor Nunn production, an almost complete belter, is vividly staged and has a tight (I do not mean tiddly) band.
It also, ooooh boy, has Hannah Waddingham.
Where do you start with heavenly Hannah? She’s a bodice-burster built like Boudicca.
She has the height of an English lineout jumper but slenderer legs, perfect pitch and a full-pearled smile. Ping! Those teeth are an altar to British dentistry. Big-hearted Miss Waddingham plays Lilli Vanessi, a grumpy film star reduced to a rep production of Shrew The Musical in Baltimore.
Shakespeare’s tale has been souped up to meet commercial demands. Bachelor Petruchio enters singing the zingy I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua. Cue Tudor tap dancing, tombstone grins, and rhymes that match ‘Padua’ with ‘cad you are’.
Lilli, as the shrew, co-stars in this codpiece epic with ex-husband Fred (Alex Bourne), whom she still loves. He is having it off with ditzy Lois Lane (Holly Dale Spencer). Fred sends some flowers to Lois but they are delivered to Lilli.
When Lilli discovers the mistake, she exacts revenge onstage during an increasingly chaotic Shrew The Musical.
Mr Bourne, a burly presence and a powerful voice, is perfect. This Fred could be from a silent movie-era Robin Hood. Disaster unfolds but Fred flashes insistent smiles at his audience – even while giving Lilli’s bottom a spanking.
Things start brightly with Another Op’nin, Another Show, the hoofers flashing tonsils and more. Grrrr. The old chaps of Chichester do love a long-thighed chorus line. Defibrillators on standby, house manager.
Miss Waddingham’s entrance: Marlene Dietrich glamour, curls of cigarette smoke, the pout of a Latin nanny. I didn’t like her blonde barnet much – the wigs she wears at first are a bit dodgy – but she is all heart.
Her voice can switch in an instant from warbly knees-up (Wunderbar) to husky ballad (So In Love).
Her speaking voice loses its initially uncomfortable echo and she gives a full-throttle commitment to the laughter, repeatedly at the expense of her dignity. Irresistible.
Add two terrific mobsters (David Burt and Clive Rowe) and a genuinely touching denouement which puts Shakespeare in his place, and you have a beaut of a show.
It heads to London’s Old Vic in the autumn, by which time Miss Waddingham should have more suitors than the Old Bailey.
It’s one of theatre’s great love songs to itself: to onstage energy and backstage bickering, song and dance and break-a-leg , egos and ensemble, sweaty tights and Shakespeare. Add to that director Trevor Nunn’s long love affair with both the American musical and the Bard, the swoonably brilliant Cole Porter songs, the perennial theme of warring couples, and Chichester’s talent for pizzazz on the big stage, and it could hardly fail.
It certainly doesn’t. For a start, Hannah Waddingham is Lilli Vanessi, the diva who must play Katharina in the fictional musical-within-a-play of the Taming of the Shrew. She is always a force of nature whether in Spamalot or Sondheim, and here the full range of her brilliance has scope. She deploys a roundedly beautiful voice in lyrical moments, the lower register having the ability to make the sparsest male hair grow on end; yet will roar, growl, and at one point even burb, sprawl akimbo and temporarily suspend all feminine dignity. She is mesmerising. She could make most leading men look faded, but Alex Bourne is Fred Graham / Petruchio, and he is all man; sonorous and macho-basso. Terry King, the fight director, has them hurling, punching, slapping, spanking and suffering painful half-nelsons in kick-me-Kate battles – their first dressing-room spat melting into a happily reminiscent Wunderbar. The chemistry is all there: that magnetic, Noël Coward-like fizz that Porter recognised in the authors of the book, the equally fiery ex-couple Sam and Bella Spewack.
Holly Dale Spencer as Lois is a bubbly delight in her Broadway moments and deliberately, beautifully lousy delivering Shakespeare lines, Mark Heenehan a fine American-Eagle caricature as General Harrison Howell, and David Burt and Clive Rowe hysterical as the gangsters who, with charming menace, gradually become stagestruck. It is all you can do not to sing along with Brush up your Shakespeare.
Stephen Mear’s genius as a choreographer (remember Crazy for You) blends authentically silly period showbiz moves with modern edge. Less tap here, but when it comes it blows your head off. Nunn’s finicky theatre-maker’s care achieves the tricky dual vision of the “onstage” sequences, as what should be happening at all and must be covered up with a quavering “I know not what to say” from Paul Grunert’s Bapista. And Robert Jones’s design (within and before a showy proscenium arch, for this is an Old Vic collaboration due to go up there later) uses an unexpected simple trick: various rooms and a great tree all made of flimsy muslin are drawn aloft out of boxes by the cast, as if in a conjuring trick, Theatre magic, see?
The Daily Telegraph
Lucky people of Chichester. Not only does summer bring to their doorsteps one of the great American musicals, but everything’s thrown at it in this scintillating co-production between the Festival Theatre and the Old Vic.
There’s top-notch, tautly paced direction from Trevor Nunn. There’s sublime choreography from Stephen Mear, apparently able to make a chorus line of dancers not just glide but float across the stage. The leading players are blessed with the kind of voices you’d happily lean over a balcony and risk a fatal tumble to hear. A mighty orchestra, West End values? All part of the package.
The last major London revival was in 2001, in the wake of 9/11. We’re still in need of the uplift that only a feelgood show of this calibre can supply, but even so it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that Kiss Me Kate will work a treat. Although Cole Porter’s 1948 score crowbars in some of his wittiest and most pleasurable songs, in the wrong hands the evening could teeter on being tiresome.
Set both backstage and onstage during a touring American production of The Taming of the Shrew, it ingeniously parallels the action of Shakespeare’s sex-war comedy with the antics, rivalries and tiffs of the leading players, allowing dressing-room shenanigans to spill into the spotlights and spice up art with the acrimonious “real thing”.
Yet while love-hate battles between men and women are as old as the hills, so is thespian egotism – and if showbiz self-awareness is allowed to over-dominate, you end up with an arty love-in that’s a big turn-off.
From the opening number, though – Another Op’nin, Another Show – the production succeeds in balancing a necessary sense of artifice with an unforced quality of naturalness. The set-up scene shifts from a series of chaotic comings-and-goings to wave after wave of hoofing delight, with the company pulling together and building up a head of steam like a thundering locomotive.
Lilli the leading lady becomes as bloody-minded as shrewish Katharine on discovering that ex-husband Fred – the show’s director, as well as its bullying Petruchio – has eyes not on a reunion but a dalliance with the blonde bimbo playing Bianca. Glorious in the role, Hannah Waddingham doesn’t stint on clichéd hissy behaviour, but she invests it with real hurt, too. Her snarling showstopper I Hate Men is all the stronger for its undertow of palpable wounded pride. And when she and Alex Bourne’s Fred finally do kiss and make up, they wrest something properly touching from what could just look tactically convenient.
With superb support from, among others, a deadpan Clive Rowe and David Burt as the pinstriped mafioso hoodlums who muscle their way into the action and get their come‑uppance courtesy of the sheepish Brush Up Your Shakespeare, those who think Kiss Me Kate too tame, too theatrical or its assumptions about the sexes too troublingly traditionalist to raise the roof in 2012 should be forced into a gratified state of submission by this belter of a night.
Cole Porter's cosmopolitan chic essentially belonged to the 1930s, but he enjoyed a late, great hit in 1948 with this backstage story: one that shows the battling relationship of the once-married Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham re-enacted as they play Kate and Petruchio in what someone here wittily, though perhaps anachronistically, dubs Shrew: the Musical. It's a glorious show that gets a pitch-perfect revival from Trevor Nunn and many of his regular musical team.
Nunn seizes on the key fact that Sam and Bella Spewack's book is a piece of Broadway Pirandello in which life and art become virtually inseparable. When the wonderful Hannah Waddingham sings I Hate Men with teeth-baring ferocity, you're not sure whether her anger stems from the character of Kate or from Lilli's fury at Fred's dalliance with an ex-nightclub hoofer. Equally, Alex Bourne's rousing tribute in Where Is the Life That Late I Led? to his old Italianate flames (including the lovely Lisa who gave "new meaning to the leaning tower of Pisa") is part Petruchio, part the recollection of a showbiz Casanova. Only Lilli's final song of submission lacks the irony we expect of contemporary Kates.
But it's a joyous show that owes much to the brilliant, infinitely varied choreography of Stephen Mear. In Wunderbar, as danced by Fred and Lilli in their dressing room, he captures the romantic delicacy of old-style operetta. Too Darn Hot, led by Jason Pennycooke as Fred's dresser, becomes a jazzy exploration of sexual tension with echoes of the rump-brandishing style of Bob Fosse. And Brush Up Your Shakespeare is performed by David Burt and Clive Rowe as a pair of gangsters who learned to love the Bard in the prison library, with a stateliness that reminded me of Laurel and Hardy.
Virtuosic staging takes precedence over verbal clarity only in Holly Dale Spencer's rendering of Always True to You in My Fashion. But this is a minor blip in a show that looks handsome in Robert Jones's pastiche commedia designs, and that, thanks to Nunn, gives Porter's scintillating numbers a precise emotional context. After last year's Sweeney Todd, this confirms Chichester as the home of the first-rate musical revival.
The Sunday Times
Properly analysed, parts of Kiss Me, Kate are from a play within a play-within-a-play, adapted from a play-within-a-play.” Thus explains Tom Littler, associate director of this vivacious new revival of one of the greatest American musicals, based on and at the same time travestying The Taming of the Shrew. Unlike some musicals, Kiss Me, Kate is satisfyingly clever as well as properly funny, with some of Cole Porter’s best, including Brush Up Your Shakespeare, I Hate Men, Always True to You In My Fashion and Too Darn Hot. (How exactly do you pitch the woo with someone, anyway?).
The central couple are Fred Graham, actor-director, and his ex-wife, the temperamental Hollywood diva Lilli Vanessi. Why did they split? “Could have been your temper,” he snaps. “Could have been your ego,” she snaps back twice as fast. At least they haven’t publicly assassinated each other’s characters on Twitter yet, so there’s still a chance that all will be forgiven and tired old rueful middle-aged love will yet triumph…
They were divorced exactly a year before and have now come together again to act in a stage version of Shrew the Musical. Life imitated art to a ridiculous extent when Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made a movie together of the Shrew in 1967; while the theme of the divorced couple who can’t leave each other alone surely owes something to the brilliant His Girl Friday.
At first, it isn’t quite clear that Alex Bourne, playing Fred Graham/Petrchio, has the necessary mordancy and domineering harshness, but he convinces with actorly vanity and hamminess. The greatest danger with Hannah Waddingham is always that her huge voice, sheer charisma and stage presence won’t leave room for anyone else, however generously she tries, but here she is perfect and touching as Lilli, and swaggeringly, boorishly manly as Kate in I Hate Men.
Possibly the best laughs come from the fantastic dim and subservient blonde (or is she?) Lois Lane, played by Holly Dale Spencer. Of the minor characters, Wendy Mae Brown makes the most of a sadly small role.
The choreography by Stephen Mear is an absolute joy, as good as anything you’ll see in the West End, and the singing is crisply clear, so you get all Porter’s ludicrous rhymes – “Padua” rhymed with “a loathsome lad you are”. Trevor Nunn’s productions have not always been entirely successful recently, but this is a great return to form, loading on numerous neat touches and visual gags. My favourite involves the panicky movement of the spot-light off Kate/Lilli at one point – the ferocity of her scowl is just too alarming. This, after all, is the women who, according to her ex, “bit King Kong and gave him rabies”.
There’s a constant awareness that while all good comedies should end with peace and love, the lovers’ furious quarrels meantime are fabulously entertaining, both for themselves and for onlookers. And the “comedy” of the domestic violence is lightly dealt with: Kate gets away with a bit of a spanking, and it’s impossible to take the women-on-man violence here seriously.
Jason Pennycooke is terrific, leading the troupe through Too Darn Hot, with some sizzlin’ hot chorus girls. I would say that perhaps Carolyn Maitland is the sizzlin’ among them, if my staunch feminist principles didn’t prevent me from describing a talented professional in such vulgar terms.
The wonderful Clive Rowe has too minor a role as one of the heavies, and seems under-used. One other niggle: for what is essentially still a lightweight musical, no matter how entertaining, a stretch of three full hours with interval is far too long. Tighter pacing and some cutting might have helped. The one universal complaint you regularly hear among theatre-goers is that it went on too long. I’ve never heard anyone say it was too short.