Kiss Me, Kate – Lyric Theatre – Review
by Cathy Brown
1 – 22 Feb 2020
A co-production between Northern Ireland Opera and the Lyric Theatre
Staging a production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate might be seen as a brave choice for NI Opera and the Lyric Theatre to make in 2020. This lively, complex play-within-a-play, which has its origins in Shakespeare’s problematic The Taming of the Shrew has become a tricky proposition. With the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, modern attitudes towards gender inequality clash vividly with the patriarchal dominance of both sets of source material, which feature gender stereotypes and scenes of wife-slapping.
It is 1948 in Baltimore and Fred and Lilli have been divorced for a year but are clearly still in love. They have reunited for a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew where they are playing Petruchio and Katharine. The onstage and offstage stories quickly merge when Lilli gets flowers from Fred, which were originally intended for ingénue Lois Lane (Jayne Wisener). Lilli’s fury fuels her onstage performance as Katherine and when the misogynist manhandling occurs, she is more than prepared to fight back. Will the show go on? If it does, Fred must tame his leading lady, or does she need to tame him?
Kiss Me, Kate’s real-life original producer came to Porter with the idea for the show after witnessing actual star couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne fighting viciously backstage during a production of Shakespeare’s play. Porter then enlisted Sam and Bella Spewack, a husband-and-wife writing team with their own marital issues, to write the book. That is a lot of marital strife, both on and off the stage.
Director Walter Sutcliffe tackles any difficulties with insight and wit through slight changes of emphasis and a levelling of the playing field between the men and women in the cast.
The production opens and closes with Fred watching television and as images of Farage, Epstein and Trump – poster boys for toxic masculinity – flash across the screen, Sutcliffe raises the suspicion that what we are about to see is all inside one man’s complicated head. It is a clever touch, which distances the production from the more problematic attitudes contained within. Sutcliffe does not shy from the unpalatable violence either, which leaves the audience with a sufficiently queasy feeling at the end of Act 1.
It helps too that the production is performed and staged with such style and wit. Melle Stewart as Lilli is a winning combination of gorgeous vocal ability and charismatic stage presence. She brings a biting comic sense to numbers such as ‘I Hate Men’ but is also able to melt hearts with ‘So In Love’. She shares a strong chemistry with Norman Bowman’s Fred, who exudes oily charm but also manages to elicit sympathy as a man questioning where he has ended up in life, particularly in his moving performance of ‘Where is the Life that Late I Led?’. Jayne Wisener gives a prettily coquettish performance as Lois – the starlet who is more than aware of what she needs to do to get to the top.
The supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Matthew Cavan sizzles in a scene-stealing rendition of ‘Too Darn Hot’ which makes great use of the Lyric’s auditorium while Richard Croxford as Fred’s love rival Harrison Howell invests his character with a Trumpian sense of overblown self-importance. Marty Maguire and Darren Franklin have a lot of fun as the debt-collecting gangsters who become inadvertently caught up in the world of the theatre and their performance of ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ is a crowd-pleaser of the highest order.
A 12-piece orchestra, led irrepressibly by Conor Mitchell, brings a sumptuous joyfulness to the whole production and wonderfully supports the strong vocal performances.
Under Jennifer Rooney’s tight choreography, the cast expertly navigate Jon Bausor’s attractive set, with its backstage dressing rooms and on stage sets perfectly emphasising the frenetic hothouse nature of the theatre world.
This is a clever and complex production from NI Opera, which allows the audience to enjoy Kiss Me, Kate in a new light – as a two-way taming that still does not shy away from the problematic nature of its source material.
This is a show in love with the intoxicating power of theatre, which in turn, proves intoxicating for the audience.
Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book By Sam & Bella Spewack