This co-production with Chichester Festival Theatre (where it was reviewed in July) of Kiss Me, Kate has all the ingredients. It was Cole Porter’s biggest hit musical, and deservedly so, with numbers such as “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. It derives, as so many golden-age musicals seem to, from Shakespeare, in this case a feud between exes during the out-of-town try-out of a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew… oh, and that’s another one: it’s a show about a show.
Trevor Nunn’s revival is packed with talent, from the statuesque and titanium-lunged Hannah Waddingham as diva Lilli, relishing every moment of furious coloratura, and Clive Rowe as one of a brace of intruding gangsters (the Old Vic’s gain is Hackney Empire’s loss, as the latter’s Christmas pantomime is once again this year without one of the best dames in the business). Other stalwarts include Adam Garcia and David Burt, and Jason Pennycooke, who here gets to take the lead on “Too Darn Hot”, deserves to be as widely known by the public at large as he is in the profession.
Why, then, does the production turn out merely so-so? In July, Antony Thorncroft wrote of director Trevor Nunn’s “ingrained meticulous attention to detail”. Too many directors seem not to trust their material; Nunn is a master at doing so, but to the point where it can become a danger. Here, it gets him coming and going: in the spoken segments, he allows a natural pacing to let matters drag when some zing is needed, and with the musical numbers, he goes all-out to milk every last drop of zing to the point where even zing can become tiring. (I was dubious when the first verse of “Another Op’nin’” was given its fourth rendition, but a fifth was still to come, and the staging includes planned encores of “Always True to You in My Fashion” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”.)
A show which in its 1953 movie version runs for about an hour and 50 minutes here comes in at a whisker under three. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, especially when that thing is merely good and, frustratingly, not quite excellent. It’s too darn lukewarm.