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On Theatre

A rollicking, great Kiss Me Kate

Musical and artistic brio can transcend the “problematic”

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

By the time Cole Porter started his breakneck-speed Kiss Me Kate project in the sombre aftermath of the Second World War, his glory days of pre-war musical hits were fading. Even he sounded defensive about the project. 

The idea of turning Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew into a multi-sided romance and conjoined comedy of back stage errors, featuring gangsters, mistaken identity and the era staple of divorced couples still hankering for each other — for instance, Private Lives (1930) and the Philadelphia Story (1940) — was an expensive business. Porter even included a sly dig at backers who had been initially reluctant to go with the idea, brandishing the Bard in his defence: “Well, Fred, this is sort of a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare, you know …”

The enfant terrible’s charm had worn thin: for all his success, Porter’s dissolute lifestyle made a more guarded Broadway business elite cautious about funding his high-concept ideas.Even Porter had to be convinced by the writers Bella and Samuel Spewack that an adaptation of a Shakespeare play set against the performance of a backstage musical could be carried off. It was written and ready to roll in three months.

The play-within-a play is nicely captured in the Barbican’s fizzy new production — a stand-off between the show’s director and star Fred Graham (Adrian Dunbar) and his snappish ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi (Stephanie J Block), comes with the failsafe Shakespearean mirror effect of another couple, the independence-seeking Lois Lane/Bianca (Georgina Onuorah) and feckless gambling boyfriend Bill/Lucentio (Charlie Stemp).

Bartlett Sher’s production pays homage to the origins of the Porter’s vision — he is a gay director, who often highlights the repressing yearnings in stories in which sexual minorities barely featured — or did so in code. He also questions many of the dustier premises of musicals whose date stamps echo the prejudices of their time, from The King and I to South Pacific and My Fair Lady (in his version Eliza does not agree to pick up the Professor’s damned slippers) – while revelling in the gorgeousness of musical theatre and the wow factor of drop-dead costumes and premier cru tunes.

Kiss Me Kate is slighter confection, but also one that mirrors feminist unease at the idea that a woman without a man needs “taming”. So much so that recent US productions have effectively carried trigger warnings: “Kiss Me Kate is a seriously problematic show,” grumbles a Chicago theatre website, on which grounds we would end up consigning a lot of great musicals to the scrap heap. 

Nothing daunted, the Barbican production is a rollicking evening which makes the best of Porter’s lovely musical confections, while sending up a plot which has about as much toxic masculinity as you could fit into a story of showgirls with a dab of domestic violence: “Keep on acting the way you’re doing Miss Vanessi and I’ll give you the paddling of your life — and onstage”.

Adrian Dunbar’s Fred is by turns bullish and melancholy. He gets the brio of the high notes, with the braggadocio of all that performative masculinity. It’s hard to go wrong in the vocals or va-va-vroom with Stephanie J Block, Broadway Tony award winner for her Sondheim outings. There’s a balance between casting here for stage presence — which Dunbar has — and voice demands of a libretto which owes a lot to operetta and there’s some unevenness here, which might iron itself out over a long summer run in the Barbican’s demanding acoustic.

Michael Yeargan’s set and Anthony van Laast’s dizzying choreography exploits the Barbican’s huge stage front — on which we watch the back-biting and plot slide into the on-stage action with a few nod-and-a-wink jokes about the engineering difficulties for those who like their “fourth wall” dismantled.

Come for the silly romantic plot; stay for the eternal songs. “Too Darned Hot” (surely the only song written about loss of libido due to the weather) by Fred/Petruchio is delivered with real melancholy by a frustrated Dunbar — a metaphor for his limitations — rather than Ella Fitzgerald’s coy playfulness.  

“Always True To You Darling In My Fashion,” and the joyous celebration of a relationship’s rebirth in “From This Moment On” are reminders that Porter was the master of the swoop from the poignant to the silly.

the best way to deal with the problematic past is not to ban or bury it, but to show up its follies

Critics have a point that 1940s repartee can drag and songs like “I Hate Men” with tired jokes about businessmen and secretaries have not worn well. But forgive it for the timeless one-liners “I never forget a wealthy face” and “Get thee to a notary” — and the Puccini-homage jauntiness of “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?”

So yes, The Shrew and its offshoots are “problematic” at about as many levels as would fit into a gender-studies seminar. Sher is the best musicals director of this generation, because he understands the bones of musical theatre and where it fits in a longer story of our limitations and delights. He’s not afraid of difficulty and his Kiss Me Kate is a glorious reminder that the best way to deal with the problematic past is not to ban or bury it, but to show up its follies — and demonstrate that the music and artistic brio can transcend its limitations.

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