Bringing together the timeless plot of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the wit of writers Sam and Bella Spewack and the lyrical and musical genius of Cole Porter can only be a good thing. And The Old Vic’s production of Kiss Me Kate is the perfect hilarious, stylish, entertaining and heart-warming embodiment of this dream team.
The behind-the-scenes musical follows the crummy Baltimore opening night of a musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Its stars are the megalomaniac Frederick Graham and his ex-wife Lily Vanessi – proud owner of “the worst temper in show biz”. The show must go on amid their (often violent) spats both on and off stage, the arrival of two hoodlums looking for payment and the general mayhem of a cast of amateurs.
The two leads Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne are spellbinding in their performances of Porter’s vocally challenging score and the Spewacks’ sharp script. They sweep up the audience just as powerfully in their heart-felt love songs as they do in their outrageous comedy numbers and bitter exchanges.
Their supporting cast are on the whole brilliant. The comedy duo of hoodlums David Burt and Clive Rowe had the audience in hysterics with their deadpan delivery of gangster rhetoric and especially with their charming rendition of the wordy and hilarious Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Extra special mention, however, must go to the triple threat Adam Garcia (best known as the cheeky Australian hunk from 90s teen classic Coyote Ugly). His voice was rich and beautiful and he is the best tap dancer I remember seeing on the stage in years. The only disappointing lead was Holly Dale Spencer as the careerist nightclub singer Lois Lane. While she portrayed as good a bimbo as anyone, she hammed it up horribly and was loud, but just not that fun.
There is not one dud number in Porter’s score, and the cast did justice to every hilarious ditty and touching love song. However, at the interval you could not help but feel that opportunities for dance numbers had been wasted – with the cast limited to only the occasion kick and turn for the whole act. Nevertheless, I was thrilled by the sexy and Fosse-esque opener to the second act, Too Darn Hot – led by the apparently superhuman and boneless Jason Pennycooke. Fantastic dance numbers continued in the second act, including the all-out tap dancing number Bianca in which Garcia shows his full potential.
This was my first visit to the isolated Old Vic (just a short, unpleasant walk from Waterloo station) and in fact the first time a musical has been staged there. This is unsurprising when the building itself resembles a small village hall rather than a West End theatre. Once inside the beautifully ornate auditorium, however, the intimate arena is the perfect size for a musical comedy. Well worth the trek, including the chance of running into the theatre’s artistic director, Mr Kevin Spacey.
I have so much more praise to give but will limit myself to one final remark on the ingenious set, which manipulated the perspective wonderfully, making the curtain of the “real” stage seem endless. Scene changes were brilliantly crafted by chorus members erecting white sheets with painted back-drops – this sounds quite shoddy now I read my description back, but the result was simple and very effective.
9/10 – Kiss Me Kate is everything a classic musical comedy should be – hilarious, full of dance numbers, touching, bursting with larger-than-life characters and reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood. It is the most entertaining evening at the theatre you will have for a long time and you will see talented and versatile stars of a quality that is not easy to come by.
Kiss Me Kate will be running at The Old Vic until 2 March
Press Night Trailer –