Chichester is now an incubator for West End musicals. Last year the Festival Theatre despatched its productions of Singin’ in the Rain and Sweeney Todd profitably to London; this summer Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate has already reserved a winter berth at the Old Vic.
Kiss Me, Kate is Porter’s masterpiece, with no duds among its 20 songs, a lively plot involving a fraught musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, which enables Porter to exploit his wit and erudition, and two powerful lead roles for the feuding Fred and Lilli, who carry their love and hate on to the stage and back to their dressing rooms.
Director Trevor Nunn effectively anchors the action in 1948, the year of its opening, and confidently covers all the corners – the dancing (choreographer Stephen Mear) is lively, the costumes charming, the band enthusiastic. It is a well-drilled ensemble piece, but with an exceptional plus: a star performance from Hannah Waddingham as Lilli, the Shrew. She manages the musical kaleidoscope, from the menacing “I Hate Men” to the passionate “So in Love”, with vocal charm and confidence, capturing the audience. Alex Bourne, as the Shrew-tamer, has his work cut out but he manages fine.
To a great extent, Nunn lets the songs power the action, so Holly Dale Spencer and Adam Garcia as the number-two couple need do little but sing “Why Can’t You Behave?” and “Always True to You in My Fashion” with elan, although Garcia puts in some nice foot work. Mark Heenehan contributes a neat cameo as Lilli’s fiancé General Howell in a deadpan duet of “From This Moment On”.
Kiss Me, Kate is the ultimate Broadway musical from the golden age, but with well justified pretension. The boisterous first and second act openers, “Another Op’nin, Another Show” and “Too Darn Hot”, demand full-throated, high-kicking bravura, and they get them here. The love songs are charming. Even the Shakespearean dialogue in the Shrew scenes, which can slow things down, seem relevant. The only real criticism is the lack of a grand finale to get the audience on its feet.
It does not help that, like many Nunn productions, Kiss me Kate seems to outstay its welcome by about 10 minutes – it is perhaps Nunn’s ingrained meticulous attention to detail. By the time you get to the big crowd-pleasing number “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, David Burt and Clive Rowe, as the gangsters who somehow get embroiled in a show, have to work hard for their ovation. But it would be hard not to leave Kiss Me, Kate happy and humming.