Kiss Me Kate – June 2012

Experience: 8/10

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Sam and Bella Spewack

Directed by Trevor Nunn

CFT and Old Vic co-production

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 22nd June 2012

If there’s one thing that Chichester are doing really well at the moment, it’s musicals. This is another gem, and given that this was only the 4th performance and it’s likely to improve, get your tickets now because they’ll soon be sold out.

We didn’t have the best angle to watch from tonight. Our seats were right of centre, normally an excellent position, but the set was slanted across the stage to the left, so we felt we were sitting much further round to the side. God knows what the people actually sitting round that way saw! The set was fabulous all the same. It combined the backstage area, the stage itself and a small area outside the stage door, all in the one set. The proscenium arch was placed across the stage facing diagonally left. For the scenes on stage there was a backdrop with a small exit on the right hand side, while cloth drapes, boxes and chairs completed the onstage set. At right angles to the proscenium arch were a couple of boxes, fortunately not blocking anyone’s view on that side. For backstage scenes, the backdrop was raised and we could see the open area with brickwork and doors, or the dressing rooms would be turned round so we could see those scenes. On the far right were the stage door and a small strip of stage down to the stairs which served as the outside world. Lighting changes emphasised one area or the other, and with dancing and one or two songs covering the scene changes, they kept some momentum going. Even so, the changes were a bit clunky, but they’ll improve for practice.

To set up a location in the musical-within-a-musical, they brought on, amongst other things, a box which they placed in the middle of the stage. A spotlight picked it out – this didn’t always happen tonight, but I assume it was intended – a white-gloved hand would open the box with a flourish, and then take out a strand of cloth to start the process. Others would come in to help attach the corners of the cloth set, and then it would be lifted up to give a wall and door (Petruchio’s place), an overhanging cloth (Padua) and a lovely cloth tree, with the patterns of leaves printed on the cloth as well as scalloped strips of cloth arranged all round it. They will find it easier in time, but tonight these sections were a bit too messy and held the energy back a little.

The costumes were lovely, and in period for the 1948 sections. The Elizabethan look was cunningly woven into the m-w-a-m costumes, though they wouldn’t pass muster at the Globe. The band was above and behind, as usual, and the set completely obscured them this time, but they were a strong presence, naturally. The dancing was fine – the opening number of the second half was about fifteen minutes long! – but the singing and dialogue need to be clearer; I lost a lot of Cole Porter’s witty lyrics, but again this will come on in time.

There isn’t an overture for this show, at least not in the usual style. The chorus sings the opening number, Another Op’nin’, Another Show, adding snippets of later songs, and taking practice runs at the choreography. It was a lively start, and the following scene, with Fred Graham giving some pre-opening notes and taking them through their bows, was good fun. The pre-show scenes continued to fill in the relationships. Lois and Bill (Bianca and Lucentio) are an item, but he gambles (and she’s susceptible to expensive presents, as we discovered later – not that it came as a surprise). Fred and Lilli are always sniping at each other, but she loves him deeply, despite having an ongoing relationship with a mystery man. When she was brought some flowers which were clearly a gift from Fred, as they were the same as the flowers she had in her wedding bouquet, she softened towards him; unfortunately he had intended the flowers for Lois, and although he tried to get back the note he had written for them, Lilli slipped it down her bodice as a good luck token, planning to read it later.

The first m-w-a-m scene, We Opened In Venice, involved the cast moving a load of boxes around the stage on a trolley (I assume). It was messy and lacked sparkle, but didn’t become too boring. Then they did the first set-in-a-box process, and it worked OK. Allowing for massive changes to the original, we then saw some of the opening scenes, with Baptista, Gremio, Hortensio, Lucentio, Bianca and Kate going through a sizeable chunk of Act 1 scene 1 (no Grumio or Tranio in this version), and with Lucentio making himself known to Baptista as a suitor for Bianca.

Bianca then made her feelings clear about her various suitors, and seemed to be happy to marry anyone, anyone at all, in Tom, Dick Or Harry, although there was a definite emphasis on ‘Dick’. At one point a suitor, Gremio I think, tore some cloth off Bianca’s skirt, leaving her with a leg-revealing gap. It looked odd, though presumably it would be easier to dance in, and it’s not unknown for musicals to show off the eye candy to best advantage. Fortunately that extended to the tight tights worn by the fit young men who leapt about the stage, definitely a treat for us ladies.

Petruchio arrived as the suitors were arguing about Lucentio, and broke up their quarrel. He was Lucentio’s friend this time, which meant poor Hortensio had very little to do. He sang I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua well enough, but the staging hasn’t stuck in my mind. I forget the exact order of events now, but Petruchio was introduced to Baptista, they left to have a drink, and at some point Kate and Bianca did a brief version of their argument, with Baptista breaking it up very quickly – this may have happened earlier.

With Kate left alone on stage, she used the table, chairs and drinking cups left behind as ammunition for I Hate Men. As Baptista and Petruchio came back on stage for the preamble to the wooing scene, Lilli went off stage, happily opening the note she had kept down her dress. This was where things started to go so very wrong. Having promised never to call Fred a bastard again, Lilli broke that promise a few moments later; we heard her from backstage. Baptista and Petruchio both looked alarmed, and then Kate came back out for the wooing scene, loaded for bear. She didn’t hold back on the pretend slaps, and with the scene being played almost in full, there were plenty of opportunities for her to inflict damage on the ‘bastard’. Finally he’d had enough, and after threatening her with a spanking, he actually carried it out, right there on the stage. The next song, Kiss Me, Kate, had her refusing to do any such thing, and so to the interval.

The second half started with Too Darned Hot, a number that didn’t advance the story but certainly got the energy up again after the break. Paul, Fred’s dresser, was the lead singer and dancer, and he did a splendid job, while the dancing was not only good, it went on for a long while. Hattie, Lilli’s dresser, also added some humour. She was sitting by the front of the stage, sewing something, and when Paul tried to get close to her, she made  several pointed comments, such as “you see this needle”, which did the trick  and kept him away. She also joined in the dance, briefly; singing was her forte.

With Lilli/Kate nursing a sore behind, the next scene was at Petruchio’s house. He nicked the cushion that someone brought on for her, took away what little food she managed to get her hands on – Lilli had been asking for a sandwich since before the show – and had a cloth door slammed in his face when Kate stormed off into their bedroom. His song, Where Is The Life That Late I Led?, was good fun, although I didn’t catch all the lines, and he used the full width of the stage to get us all involved.

Lilli’s mystery man, General Harrison Howell, arrived to take Lilli away – I’ll get to that part later – and after expressing his chauvinistic attitudes to Fred, he was recognised by Lois. She had featured strongly in the General’s R&R during the war, although she didn’t remember much of the ‘rest’ part. With Bill overhearing some of her conversation with General she had to explain herself to him, hence the number Always True To You In My Fashion, which they did very well.

Lilli’s attempt to leave the theatre had been scotched earlier, and since Fred had persuaded the General that Lilli’s request was just a whim, Howell wasn’t too supportive of her as they talked in her dressing room. He wouldn’t call the FBI, he wouldn’t let her eat after 21:00 hours, and fancy French hats would clearly be a thing of the past for the wife of the next Vice president of the United States of America! (No chance of that – he’d picked Dewey.) Despite this, they sang a sickeningly smoochy version of From This Moment On, a song inserted in the 1999 Broadway revival.

While Lilli dressed to leave, the rest of the cast entertained us with Lucentio’s love poem to his adored, Bianca. It has gloriously rubbish lyrics, but the tap dancing and singing were good, and as tap is my favourite I enjoyed this number the most. Lilli left via the stage door, and with Howell being so precise and demanding I was aware that this was a completely unsuitable match for her. Fred went back in for the end of the show, and then came the bit we’d all been waiting for.

To go back a little: Bill’s gambling was not successful, and he’d signed an IOU for $10,000 using Fred’s’ name. The gentleman holding the IOU, Mr Hogan, sent round two of his employees, known to us as First Man and Second Man, to collect on the debt. At first Fred denied all knowledge of the debt, claiming it wasn’t even his signature – they all say that – but when Lilli was planning to leave, he saw an opportunity. While acknowledging the IOU, he explained that he couldn’t pay it back till the end of the week, and with Lilli leaving, the show would fold immediately. The two gentlemen, well read in matters Shakespearean, were unhappy about Lilli’s career choice, and made their displeasure known by means of waving their guns around. Until her General arrived, there was nothing Lilli could do but soldier on, with two preposterously dressed minders watching her every move. Their spats didn’t really go with the Elizabethan style of their tabards, and First Man’s sunglasses simply had to be removed.

During the second half, these two men were checking in with Mr Hogan when they learned of a change of management. Mr Hogan’s debts of honour died with the man, so Fred was in the clear and the two men could leave, after changing out of their costumes of course. As they made their way out of the theatre, they found themselves in front of the curtain, facing the audience. Unsure of what to do, they whispered for a bit then launched into the impromptu (but wasn’t it lucky the band had the music ready) Brush Up Your Shakespeare. It went pretty well, though again it should improve with some more performances.

That done, and despite Fred telling someone to get Lilli’s understudy ready to play Kate, there was an empty seat for the final scene. The tree had been set up well enough – they are fiddly, those cloth sets – and the cast had an air of dejection, while Fred was deeply unhappy. With no Kate to supply her lines, and no widow for Hortensio (poor man), Bianca left the stage on her own and the men fell to arguing about the relative merits of the two wives. Lucentio sent for Bianca by one of the women who were in attendance; she didn’t turn up, natch. After Petruchio sent for Kate, there was a long pause, after which Bianca crept back on at the side of the stage and shook her head. Fred sat on a chair, head in hands, and the rest of the cast didn’t quite know what to do with themselves. Then Kate came on from the back, in full costume, and walked to the front of the stage, with the rest of the cast reacting to her arrival. When she spoke her line “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?”, Petruchio leapt to his feet (pause while I blow my nose, sniffle, sniffle) and was overjoyed to see her. It felt absolutely right that she’d come back, and her song I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple was more a declaration of love for him than an expression of the sentiments in the lyrics. They finished with a rousing version of Kiss Me, Kate, and this time they did kiss, long and hard.

This was great fun, and despite the rough patches it looks set to be a winner. The cast are all excellent. Hannah Waddingham (Lilli/Kate) has an amazingly powerful voice, even allowing for the mike. She has the looks and the figure to be a 1950s star, and can also do the comedy and the anger. Alex Bourne matched her very well as Fred/Petruchio, with enough charm to offset both of his characters’ arrogance (just) and a strong voice. Holly Dale Spencer’s Lois/Bianca combo was very good, although it took me a while to get used to her facial expressions when she was dancing. She showed Lois’s chorus line background by always standing with one leg in front of the other, foot resting on the toes, and she sang and danced really well. Adam Garcia was another good match as Bill/Lucentio, although I felt his part wasn’t as clearly defined as the other three. Still, he sings and dances well, and isn’t hard to look at. David Burt and Clive Rowe made a good start as the two gangsters, and there’s more to come there too, while Wendy Mae Brown (Hattie) and Jason Pennycooke (Paul) gave excellent cameos in their small but entertaining parts, probably the best defined characters at this time.

Of the rest I particularly liked Paul Grunert who played Baptista; his looks of concern when things started to go wrong added to the fun, along with his attempts to get things back on track by repeating his lines. [From the post-show on 9thAug he has trouble remembering the exact lines anyway…]  The whole ensemble looked good, though, and with practice this show should come on tremendously. We’ve already booked.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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