Kiss Me, Kate – Review – Sheffield Crucible
By Eve Luddington, December 2018
Wow, what an exhilarating evening! Sheffield Theatres have gained a reputation for first class productions of musicals and judging by Kiss Me, Kate, it’s richly deserved. From the first rousing number, ‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show’, to the final reprise of ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, it’s a sheer delight.
Cole Porter wrote the lyrics and music for the show in 1948, based on the book by Sam and Bella Spewack. It was an instant hit and has some of the wittiest lines in any musical. 70 years on, many of the songs are still familiar ear worms.
“A feast for our eyes”
The story is set on the opening night for feuding divorcees Fred and Lilli as they star in The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a battle of the sexes, ‘on-stage’ as they play out scenes from The Shrew and ‘off-stage’ in their personal clashes. The intervention of gangsters who mistakenly demand money from Fred, adds chaos to the drama.
Kiss Me, Kate cleverly weaves between off-stage and on-stage antics until the two merge to reach one satisfying resolution. Sheffield Theatres’ production gets the toes tapping and the audience suppressing the urge to sing along. At one point, I glanced at my 94 year-old companion who was mouthing the words – and saw at least six others along the row, all much younger, doing the same.
The director, Paul Foster, and choreographer, Matt Flint (from ‘Strictly’) have worked together before and their creative synergy shines through. Just as impressive is Janet Bird’s design which flavours the entire production and facilitates swift and effective scene changes. The thrust stage is almost empty at first. Above is a backstage dressing-room corridor which sometimes opens out to reveal the band and their conductor. The actors wear casual clothes of the 1930s. Then, for The Shrew scenes, stage and costumes are transformed into a feast for our eyes. We have a touring company’s rather pantomimic interpretation of Renaissance Italy, in vivid rainbow colours. Some pieces of set are flown in, others are carried or pushed by the cast to a brief snatch of music. After that, all set changes are just as pleasingly timed and choreographed, matching the pace of the piece and never detracting from the action.
The multi-talented cast execute brilliantly Foster and Flint’s imaginative direction and choreography. I bet everyone will have a particular stand-out number. The one that raised the roof the night I saw the show was ‘Too Darn Hot’, performed by the Ensemble, complete with a mean trumpet solo. Though it was dazzlingly energetic and intricately choreographed, for me it neglected the languor of hot weather that the song describes.
In every other number, the direction and choreography embraced the lyrics and enhanced the story and mood. The all-round highlight for me was ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’, danced and sung by the actress playing Bianca in The Shrew (Amy Ellen Richardson) and her three suitors, including her eventual partner, Lucentio (Dex Lee). It had everything: style, wit, perfect timing, technical brilliance and flair.
“Soaring and visceral”
The leads are superb and have genuine rapport. They play out their war with gusto, intent on giving as good as they get, but always keeping the twinkle in their eyes that the show needs. Edward Baker-Duly (Fred/Petruchio) is a belter of a baritone who articulates every one of Porter’s witty words. His characters’ go-getting arrogance is played with barely hidden relish and assured swagger.
Rebecca Lock is a soaring and visceral mezzo-soprano. As Lilli/Kate, she displays irresistible glee in her mission to wind up her ex-husband at every opportunity and performs ‘I Hate Men’ with delicious verve and attack. Her continual pricking of Fred/Petruchio’s bubble is all the funnier for our understanding, from their early duet, ‘Wunderbar’, that their aggressive feuding conceals a strong mutual attraction.
These two are very well supported by the other all-singing, all-dancing performers and, of course, by the band which plays throughout with verve. The gangsters, who steal a couple of their musical instruments at one point, are portrayed to fine comic effect by Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague as ‘brain’ and ‘brawn’. I smiled all the way through their ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ routine.
John Conway, as Harry Trevor/Baptista, plays to the hilt the wrinkly amongst the young ‘uns but nevertheless cut a merry caper. Dafydd Emyr’s Harrison Howell seems overplayed, but his rich bass voice is luscious. The Ensemble sang and danced with infectious exuberance throughout, displaying awesome technique with seemingly effortless ease.
This production of Kiss Me, Kate offers 2 hours 45 minutes of joyous entertainment at its best and deserved the audience’s standing ovation and cheers. It’s a hit, a palpable hit! Is this another Sheffield Theatres musical that will be shared with the Southerners – in the West End? I hope so.
images: Manuel Harlan