Yesterday I reached 600 continuous days of online reviewing. Considering the project started with an ambition to cover just a single month it’s probably time I issued an apology for taking up so much of everyone’s time. What began as a small but I hope not insignificant contribution to keeping the flag flying for the theatre industry has now become a pretty much comprehensive survey of just about everything that I’ve been able to find. Even so I’m aware that material has come and gone, and it’s simply not been possible to squeeze everything in, so apologies for that too. In terms of actual shows covered it’s a grand total of 948 – so maybe after another 52 it will be time to call it a day on this project….maybe!
Anyway, on with the show and after delving into the biographical story of Rogers And Hart And Hammerstein the previous day it seemed fortuitous that another American musical from one of the other greats of the era, Cole Porter, was being given an airing. Kiss Me, Kate from 1948 has been widely seen as Porter’s riposte to the integrated musical form pioneered by Rogers and Hammerstein in Oklahoma and became the writer’s longest running musical. This version is a fully enhanced concert performance (costumes and basic settings) which played as part of the 2014 Proms season at The Albert Hall.
Based on, and indeed using significant dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew, the musical centres on a performance of the latter in Baltimore on a sweltering day. The lead performers Fred Graham (Ben Davis) and Lilli Vanessi (Alexandra Silber) are at permanent war with one another and their antagonism (born of a love/hate/love/hate/love relationship) spills over onto the stage of the play within a play where they are playing Petruchio and Katherine. Soon Lilli is threatening to walk out but is prevented from doing so by a couple of shady gangster types for reasons that are too complex to go into here. There’s a subplot about the relationship between juvenile leads Lois Lane – no, not THAT Lois Lane – (Louise Dearman) and Bill Calhoun (Tony Yazbeck) mirroring Shakespeare’s own second story about the other sister Bianca and her suitor Lucentio; this neatly ties the parallel plots together.
The storyline itself is all a bit forced and concentrates on a number of showbiz clichés where the only thing that matters is that the show goes on (“the headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops” as fellow composer Irving Berlin had it). In the second half Shakespeare is all but forgotten as the backstage story comes to dominate. The whole thing is just about as un PC as you can get with little attempt to downplay the sexism inherent in both Shakespeare’s original and Porter’s update. Indeed, I don’t think there can be much hope of rebooting such a storyline to bring it into the 21st century. At least the unfortunately questionable race elements seem to have been toned down and Louise Marshall and Jason Pennycooke as dressers Hattie and Paul do get two of the best and most well-known numbers which they perform with appropriate show biz pizzazz.
And, of course, it’s the glorious score and songs that everyone comes for and which the narrative sometimes irritatingly gets in the way of. If you don’t recognise at least 70% of the numbers then you are no true fan of musical theatre. True there are a couple (e.g., “Wunderbar”) which seem to be there simply because Porter had them lying around. Maybe I’m wrong about this but did the steamy heat of Baltimore simply get tossed into the script in order to make use of “Too Darn Hot”? Whatever the case, it all becomes forgivable. The melodies are lush and highly memorable; the overture alone reminds us of that with the John Wilson orchestra doing the honours throughout. Porter of course provides the lyrics as well as the music (with a bit of help from WS here and there) which are long on wit. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” performed by the two mobsters ( James Doherty and Michael Jibson) contains forced rhymes that so glaringly awkward that they are good. And the cast certainly rises to the occasion with some fine singing sometimes bordering on the operatic. Although there are dance numbers they are rather muted – lack of space, I suspect.
This is the first of three Sunday evening broadcasts focusing on musicals; next week it’s Gershwin’s An American In Paris. If you’re in the mood for something light and frothy that comes from the Golden Age of Broadway then you need look no further. However, you might have to wait a while. I’d assumed that by this morning the production would be up and running on iPlayer for its customary month but all it says is “This episode will be available soon”. I’d better go before I have to issue another apology…