Northern Ireland Opera brings Kiss Me, Kate vibrantly to life

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Cole Porter, Kiss Me, Kate:  Cast, Chorus and Orchestra of Northern Ireland Opera / Conor Mitchell (conductor). Lyric Theatre, Belfast, 5.2.2020. (RB)

Norman Bowman, Melle Stewart, Jayne Wisener, Jack McCann (c) Johnny Frazer

Director – Walter Sutcliffe
Set and Costume designer – Jon Bausor
Musical director and Orchestrator – Conor Mitchell
Choreographer – Jennifer Rooney
Assistant director – Oisín Kearney
Lighting designer – Kevin Smith
Dramaturg – Judith Wiemers
Sound designer – Ian Vennard

Lilli Vanessi/Katharine – Melle Stewart
Fred Graham/Petruchio – Norman Bowman
Bill Calhoun/Lucentio – Jack McCann
Lois Lane/Bianca Minola – Jane Wisener
1st Gangster/Ensemble – Marty Maguire
2nd Gangster/Ensemble – Darren Franklin
Paul/Ensemble – Matthew Cavan
Harrison Howell/Ensemble – Richard Croxford
Hortensio/Ensemble – Raymond Walsh
Hattie/Ensemble – Brigid Shine
Ralph/Ensemble – Alison Harding
Jolene O’Hara – Ensemble
Maeve Byrne – Ensemble

Following the success of Sweeney Todd last year, Northern Ireland Opera have once again joined forces with the Lyric Theatre in Belfast to perform Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate.  Porter wrote Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 when his works were no longer seen as fashionable and it marked a conspicuous comeback in his career.  It features many of his most enduring numbers including ‘Why can’t you behave’, ‘So in love’ and ‘Too darn hot’.

The script looks at what goes on backstage in a theatre company in Baltimore when they are putting on a performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.  The egotistical director, Fred Graham, is acting opposite his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi in the main roles of Petruchio and Katharine.  Fred has a spiky, volatile relationship with Lilli which flares up even more when she discovers that he has designs on the fledgling actress, Lois Lane.  Meanwhile Lois’ boyfriend Bill runs up some gambling debts which he is unable to pay and he has to sign an IOU in Fred’s name.  This leads to Fred being visited by two mobsters who want him to pay up on the debt.

Kiss Me, Kate is in some ways a risky musical to put on in the current climate.  Fred’s effectively browbeats Lilli into submission during the course of the musical (at one point he puts her over his knee and spanks her) and this does not sit well with the #MeToo movement.  His louche attempts to flirt with Lois also have uncomfortable resonances with the Harvey Weinstein affair.  Cole Porter decides to send up these relationship dilemmas with moments of high farce.  Nothing is treated too seriously and even the two gangsters end up doing a comic vaudeville routine (‘Brush up your Shakespeare’).

Walter Sutcliffe very wisely follows Cole Porter’s lead with this production and handles the potential pitfalls deftly. The production begins and ends with Fred watching TV in a drunken haze as pictures of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and others appear.  Trump’s now notorious ‘pussy-grabbing’ comments are perhaps an up-to-date example of the toxic masculinity portrayed here.  The Taming of the Shrew can be interpreted as Sly’s drunken dream and the play which emerges as the character’s wish fulfilment fantasy about women submitting to their husbands.  Sutcliffe’s production approaches Porter’s play from this perspective and fantasy elements come to the fore.  At one point a glitzy neon sign descends from the roof and the cast use this as a framing device as they perform a dance number.  Everything is seen through a soft haze focus and is counterpointed with moments of high farce (such as the scratchy rendition of ‘I hate men’ and the Monty Pythonesque ‘I’ve come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua’).  While I liked Sutcliffe’s concept and there was certainly much to admire here, the dramatic narrative was not always as clear as it might be.  Porter’s original concept of a musical within a play within a play is already very complicated so adding additional layers can perhaps muddy the waters.

Where this production really triumphed was in the song and dance routines, and bravo to the cast and orchestra for performing them with such Broadway-style brio.  This was evident from the outset with ‘Another op’nin, another show’ which saw the cast greeting us with a brilliantly choreographed song and dance routine.  The set designs allowed for fluid scene changes and strategic use was made of the curtain.  The period costumes were stylish and eye catching and the dance sequences captured the razzle dazzle of 1940’s Tinsel Town.  Sutcliffe and his team made full use of the theatre auditorium and the second half opened with the cast singing and dancing in the aisles before they all assembled on the stage to perform one final big dance number.

The cast were excellent in their respective roles.  Norman Bowman’s Fred was a rakish operator who seemed to take everything in his stride.  I would have liked to see more of Fred’s bullish masculinity but Bowman’s portrayal was convincing in its own terms.   His singing was excellent throughout and his performance of, ‘Where is the life that late I led’ was a tour de force that was deservedly greeted with enthusiastic applause from the audience.  Melle Stewart certainly brought out Katharine’s shrewish spirit and she appeared to relish the farcical scenes.  No one could be in any doubt where she was coming from with the strident performance of ‘I hate men’. ‘So in love’ is one of Cole Porter’s most magical songs and Stewart’s performance in Act I was ravishing.

Jane Wisener brought the free and easy Lois Lane winningly to life while Jack McCann also put in a strong performance as her lover, Bill.  Their performance in ‘Why can’t you behave’ in Act I was one of the highlights of the performance.  McCann also treated us to a series of nifty dance moves.  ‘Too darn Hot’ could have been written for Matthew Cavan who gave a terrific performance and made this popular Cole Porter song his own.  Marty Maguire and Darren Franklin both did a superb job with ‘Brush up your Shakespeare’ – their Morecambe and Wise routine was a wonderful throwback to the golden age of music hall.

Conor Mitchell once again showed his amazing versatility with his orchestrations of Cole Porter’s songs.  As we saw with last year’s Abomination, he can compose in a wide range of styles and was able to shift seamlessly from light Viennese operetta to Italianate melodies to big Broadway show tunes.  He and his small band of instrumentalists put in cracking performances, providing excellent support and interplay with the cast throughout.

Overall, this was another great performance from Northern Ireland Opera which was deservedly greeted with a standing ovation from the audience.

Robert Beattie     

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