Staging a performance of Kiss Me, Kate today would seem to invite controversy. On the one hand, the 1948 musical – composer Cole Porter's biggest success – is full of rousing, memorable melodies, witty lyrics, contagious dance numbers and a storyline revolving around a battle of the sexes – always a timeless crowd-pleasing theme. On the other hand, the play-within-a-play plot is based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, which has been criticized for misogynism and female subordination, and features ample physical violence intended to earn laughs. But the Theater Bonn has smoothly navigated this potential rift in its refreshing production, giving us a well-needed reminder that musical arts can be light and entertaining, and appropriately so.

Oliver Arno (Petruchio), ensemble © Thilo Beu
Oliver Arno (Petruchio), ensemble
© Thilo Beu

Kiss Me, Kate had a long journey before it arrived in western Germany in this co-production between the Theater Bonn and the Dortmund Opera. It was roughly 1590 when Shakespeare wrote his play about Katherine, the feisty, headstrong shrew of the title who rejects men and marriage and Petruchio's brutal attempts to "tame" her. Some 350 years later, the husband-and-wife writer team of Samuel and Bella Spewack were asked by a Broadway producer to write the book for what would become Kiss Me, Kate, based on a real-life backstage clash that he had witnessed in 1935 between an actor couple performing in the Shrew. (In another twist, the Spewacks were themselves engulfed by marriage turmoil, which perhaps explains why the musical's feuding and fighting seems so emotionally genuine.) It debuted on Broadway in late 1948 to critical acclaim, in large part for its snappy lyrics. 

The Bonn Theater overcame the problem of translating lyrics by keeping the songs in their original English. Brushing aside a few moments where western twang oddly crept in, the cast's diction was superb, but the switch between German dialogue and English singing was a little disconcerting and the need for non-English speakers to read the supertitles meant that their attention was diverted from the action onstage.

Oliver Arno (Fred Graham) and Bettina Mönch (Lilli Vanessi) © Thilo Beu
Oliver Arno (Fred Graham) and Bettina Mönch (Lilli Vanessi)
© Thilo Beu

And the action onstage was the true star of the show. While Kiss Me, Kate lends itself to being likeable, a production still has to be good – and Martin Duncan's direction and Nick Winston's choreography went far beyond good. Winston's dance work was stylish, sharp in detail and electrifying. It's no surprise that the dance-heavy second act opener, "It's Too Darn Hot," earned the loudest applause of any number by far. Duncan, meanwhile, gave the dramatic action a blistering pace that played up the farcical and barely gave one's cheeks a respite from smiling. Though he never allowed the show to take itself too seriously and wade into heavy moralistic territory, he nodded to the controversial ending where the female protagonist Lilli Vanessi/Katharine supposedly submits herself to her husband Fred Graham/Petrucchio's domination. Duncan had her take the upper hand – literally – by spinning Graham around and dipping him into a kiss as the curtain dropped.

Francis O'Connor's costumes and sets were fun and functional for the musical's back-and-forth between on- and off-stage. That the bright colors appeared nonetheless slightly flat seemed to underline that the onstage antics were not supposed to be taken as a close reflection of real life. Boris Kahnert (lighting) also used color with good exaggeration, such as drenching the opening to Katharine's song "I hate men" in stop-sign red.

Conductor Daniel Johannes Mayr overcame a slightly uncoordinated start to lead the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn in a pumped up, swinging performance. The open pit allowed for amusing exchanges between cast and conductor (such as baton theft!), but the orchestra tended to overpower the voices despite amplification.

Kiss Me Kate ensemble © Thilo Beu
Kiss Me Kate ensemble
© Thilo Beu

The cast and chorus were generally superb, but the standout of the evening was Kara Kemeny (Lois Lane/Bianca) for her impressive dancing, flawless diction and seamless belting from top to bottom. Unfortunately, the tessitura of Lilli Vanessi/Katharine seemed a poorly fit for Bettina Mönch, whose abrupt shifts in tonal quality between registers detracted from an empathic portrayal filled with pathos and fire. Oliver Arno brought easy singing and spirited physical comedy to Fred Graham/Petruchio. Frank Wöhrmann let his dancing skills carry the role of Bill Calhoun/Lucentio. Nico Stank entertainingly played up the gruff-cutesy contrast of General Harrison Howell, while Stefan Viering earned hearty laughs as Harry Trevor/Baptista.

Some in the audience may have recognized Michael Schanze, a former public television presenter who played one of the two gangsters along with Hans-Jürgen Schatz. The contrasting comic duo sang the production's only song in German, "Schlag nach bei Shakespeare" ("Brush up your Shakespeare"), which featured clever rhymes and word play tailored to German while keeping close to original lyrics. If the nearly sold-out remaining performances are any indication, Bonn audiences thoroughly enjoy musical productions of such high caliber, though a good translation into German might let them enjoy it even more.

****1