Set backstage at a ropey production of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate has endured now for 70 years since its Broadway debut to become arguably the most famous backstage musical in history, and Cole Porter’s most fondly remembered work. Opera North’s revival of their 2015 production, which sought to restore the piece using sections of the original orchestration and scenes normally cut in modern productions, has taken up a brief residency in the London Coliseum. And it’s a suitably lavish choice of venue to match the production values – a 27-strong cast and a towering set serve to give this production a decidedly sumptuous feel and create a Golden Age feast for the senses.
The cast perform admirably – operatic soprano Stephanie Corley offers a powerhouse vocal as Lilli/Kate, even if we see too little of the vulnerability that should let us connect with her character. She’s adroitly matched by Quirjin de Lang as Fred/Petruchio who offers a softer, more likable Fred than would typically be expected. Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt round out the principals as Lois/Bianca and Bill/Lucentio, with each bringing a determined energy to their solo numbers – Lois’ Always True To You and Bill’s tap dance numbers are both highlights of a more buoyant second act that helps blast away some of the stodge of the lumbering first half.
Unfortunately the preservative approach applied to the production seems determined not to cater the show to a 2018 audience – at 3 hours the show feels overstuffed – already a risk with a show containing 20 (twenty!) songs. While it’s a joy to believably see the show in full Golden Age mode, the dated approach also extends to the show’s humour, twee and gentle on the page and lacking the directorial fine-tuning to sharpen the gags for modern expectations. The musical numbers are also performed in a more period style, with the iconic opening number Another Op’nin Another Show a more stately affair and lacking the sense of euphoric lift-off seen in recent productions.
Ultimately, the show is famously problematic at the best of times. Centred around one of Shakespeare’s nastier plays, the show’s approach to gender has never been forward-thinking, and feels positively out of place in the #MeToo era. A more vivacious production could have succeeded in partially distracting from the troubling sexism, but the more patrician approach on offer here places it front and centre, for better or for worse.
In choosing to restore rather than rejuvenate, Opera North have created a genuinely fascinating and faithful window into a bygone era. In doing so, however, they’ve chosen to celebrate the show as an antiquity, rather than drawing on its more timeless qualities.