Exhilerating Kiss Me Kate

7 Nov

I’ve written before about the dangers of opera companies doing musicals.  Singers don’t get the style, it’s aimed at making money and often not quite enough money is put into it.  Opera North has a better record than most and this new production of Kiss Me Kate, which I saw on 6th November at the Theatre Royal Newcastle, looked promising.  It turned out to be a lot better than that.

It helps that it’s a gem of a musical.  I don’t have to say that Porter was probably the best lyricist of the first half of the twentieth century (and, for my money, of the whole century) whose panache and wit still has me laughing out loud.  And the tunes are fabulous.  There isn’t a duff number in the score and the tunes keep your feet tapping throughout.  It’s a really good book as well, possibly the plot is a bit on the thin side but there’s some nice wit there and the show never flags.

David Charles Abell has done a new edition restoring the original orchestrations.  I don’t know other versions well enough to be able to spot what’s special about it.  It sounded good, however.  Better than that, it sounded “right”.  Tempi were brisk and fitted well.  The orchestra played like a really well disciplined pit band.  It would be nice if they could get Abell back for another project – not necessarily a musical.

Jo Davis’s production is as good as her Ruddigore.  It’s a slick, unflashy piece of work that plays the piece for everything that it’s worth and doesn’t try to mess it about.  It’s so good you don’t notice the production.  There’s some fabulous choreography from Will Tuckett and effective, not bank-breaking sets from Colin Richmond and glorious costumes.  A few quibbles?  Sight lines aren’t always great but that may be the theatre.  And I got a bit irritated by a tendency to bring some of the comic songs to a climax early on – begging for applause – and then you get the next verse.  “I’m always true to you” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” ended about three times.  Otherwise, this was moved quickly and got the style marvellously.  Hard not to like.

We had a mixture of opera and musical specialists.  I’ve previously thought of Quirijn de Lang as a useful, promising, unflashy, serious baritone.  I’d not thought of him as a dashing musical star.  He clearly is.  He has the matinee idol good looks and he managed the arrogant, flashy, quicksilver wit of the man perfectly.  Here was somebody who can command the stage and sing the numbers stylishly and get the audience in the palm of his hand.  I hope we don’t lose him completely to musicals but this starry performance can surely have done his career no harm at all.  A jolly good American accent too.

Jeni Bern doesn’t has a similar star quality and she made a very strong Lilli Vanessi, vigorous, violent, human.  I’d have like a few more words but these two looked like a couple of musical start.  Imports from the musical theatre were Tiffany Graves as Lois Lane – bags of sex and charm putting the numbers across really well – and Ashley Graves with bags of charm, great dancing and pretty good voice.  The gangsters were Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin – accents there weren’t quite spot on but the timings were perfect and they brought the house down with “Brush up your Shakespeare”.

Smaller roles, dancers, chorus were all excellent, hard working and looked as though they were having a lot of fun.  The packed Theatre Royal was too and it was great to be in a packed theatre where the audience was with the cast and having a marvellous time.  I’m not sure, however, that a lot of the audience will be on their way back to say, Jenufa.

I hope that Opera North make lots of money out of this and that they go on to do more musicals.  They do have a place in the repertory and the sheer quality of this work could have gone on in the West End straight away.  It’s one of the best Kiss Me Kates that I’ve seen.

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