Kiss me, Kate has a great score and great lyrics, and a somewhat indifferent plot (the book is by Samuel and Bella Spewack) laced with quantities of Shakespeare, lifted from one of his less attractive plays, The Taming of the Shrew. Cole Porter wrote it in 1948, a decade after the devastating riding accident which left him in pain for most of the rest of his life, and he and his audiences regarded it as his finest musical. In the right hands – and WNO provided the right hands – it’s a wonderful show. The first half may drag a bit, but there are some exciting and pacey numbers, while the second act is a joy from start to finish, with “Brush up your Shakespeare” as a particular treat, especially when sung as stylishly as it was in Cardiff by the double act of Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin as the two gunmen.

Jeni Bern (Lilli Vanessi/ Katharine) and Quirijn de Lang (Fred Graham/ Petruchio) © Richard Hubert Smith
Jeni Bern (Lilli Vanessi/ Katharine) and Quirijn de Lang (Fred Graham/ Petruchio)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The Ford Theater, Baltimore, is staging Shakespeare’s comedy, with a quarrelsome pair of divorcees as the stars, Fred Graham and Lilli Varessi. Lilli’s jealousy of Lois Lane (cast as Bianca), whom she thinks is having an affair with Fred, is the subject of the bulk of the drama. Lois’ boyfriend Bill Calhoun (cast as Lucentio) has signed a gambling IOU in Fred’s name, and the gunmen’s arrival to collect the debt is the subplot to the main story. Jeni Bern as Lilli/Katherine commands the entire show as a noisy, loud-mouthed shrew both offstage and on, “You bastard!” being her favourite insult to Quirijn de Lang, a lean, lanky Fred who is playing Petruchio as a leather-clad, misogynistic fop with a line in physical as well as verbal violence. The carefully-drilled American accents, often a weak point in British productions of American musicals, seemed on the whole convincing. But they said “Petrukio” when I say “Petruccio”, as do the Shakespearian authorities, so this pronunciation began to jar. Morgan Deare as Kate’s father, Baptista, made a Bert Lahr-like cameo (reminiscent of his Cowardly Lion) with a droopy moustache and a good line in hen-pecked parenthood.

Alan Burkitt (Bill Calhoun/ Lucentio) and Amelia Adams-Pearce (Lois Lane/ Bianca) © Richard Hubert Smith
Alan Burkitt (Bill Calhoun/ Lucentio) and Amelia Adams-Pearce (Lois Lane/ Bianca)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The production design played well on the backstage-onstage splits in the plot, with a forest of wood-and canvas flats and stage-management impedimenta alternating with backdrops for the Shakespearian scenes showing the French tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn – another image for taming a member of the opposite sex. The stage doorman in his glass booth was played by Martin Lloyd, who acts as if he must have observed a lot of doormen in his time.

Among the faster numbers, “Another op’nin’, another show”, led by Landi Oshinowo as an energetic Hattie, brought out the full rumpus of chorus and orchestra. The quartet “Tom, Dick or Harry” was full of seductive swagger. Kate’s “I hate men” was a rant at full volume, with Jeni Bern’s clear soprano surviving the necessary amplification, boding well for her coloratura flourishes that end the first act finale, and open the second act.

Joseph Shovelton (1st Gunman) and John Savournin (2nd Gunman) © Richard Hubert Smith
Joseph Shovelton (1st Gunman) and John Savournin (2nd Gunman)
© Richard Hubert Smith
Amelia Adams-Pearce as Lois Lane/Bianca came across with the true musical theatre spirit, and had the dancing moves (high kicks and splits) to match. She was excellently partnered by Alan Burkitt as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio, whose skill in tap-dancing was a high point of the second act, leading up to the 'New Joisey’ dirty-rat performance of the two gunmen, which brought the house down. “Brush up your Shakespeare” should be required reading in schools, if only for the “Othella/fella”, “flatter’er/Cleopatterer” and “heinous/Coriolanus” rhymes.

The alternation of rapid patter and slower lyrical numbers is something that both orchestra and soloists relished. It is a treat to hear a Broadway musical played with the full resources of an opera orchestra – augmented by five saxophones and drum-kit – with a conductor as stylish as James Holmes on the podium. There was a sense in the theatre that this was what the band had been looking forward to after an austere Shakespearian season of Verdi and André Tchaikowsky, and the brass in particular let rip with a will. This co-production with Opera North was a worthwhile foray by an opera company into musical theatre, and with any luck will be followed by more in the same vein.